Opinion writer

Anthony Sanborn Jr. was released on bail this week after serving 25 years in prison for a murder committed while he was a teenager — likely by someone else. From the Bangor Daily News:

On Thursday, Hope Cady told the court that, contrary to her original testimony, she did not witness the killing of 16-year old Jessica Briggs, that she had been forced into testifying by Portland police detectives and a state prosecutor, and that Sanborn deserves to go free.

Following the brutal murder on the Portland waterfront in 1989, Cady testified that Sanborn killed Briggs, whom he had dated. Cady was 13 at the time, living partially on the streets and under the supervision of a state social worker at the time. As the sole eyewitness, her testimony was key to the conviction that put Sanborn behind bars for most of the last three decades.

He was sentenced to 70 years. Eyewitness testimony already has a long and sordid history of misuse in the courtroom. Mistaken eyewitnesses have played a role in more than 70 percent of the convictions overturned by DNA testing.

But this case is particularly awful, not just because Cady says she was coerced into her testimony by police detectives, but because she was also visually impaired. 

During her explosive testimony, Cady said that she was legally blind at the time of the murder and could barely see the lawyer standing about seven feet from her in the Portland courtroom.

Cady testified that the detectives shouted at her, insulted her and threatened to lock her up until she agreed to identify Sanborn.

Cady’s recantation was supported by the notes of a social worker who was appointed Cady’s guardian in weeks before the trial. Neither the case worker’s notes nor a medical report on Cady’s vision were turned over to Sanborn’s attorneys before the trial. Also not turned over: A note in the prosecutor’s file from a police report urging that three other exculpatory witness statements not be turned over to the defense.

Despite the fact that Sanborn was convicted based on the testimony of a troubled, legally blind, 13-year-old eyewitness who now says she was coerced to lie by police detectives, Maine Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber still asked Justice Joyce Wheeler to keep Sanborn in prison while the state prepared rebuttal witnesses. Wheeler obviously saw things differently.

A profiler for Sanborn’s attorneys thinks the murder may have been the work of a serial killer. If the profiler is correct (and I’m skeptical of profilers), the decision to proceed with the flimsy case against Sanborn may have kept prosecutors from catching a predator who likely went on to kill again. At the very least, if Sanborn is indeed innocent, the real killer remained free.

CLARIFICATION: A few commenters have pointed out that because Cady was pressured into lying, this isn’t a case of “mistaken” eyewitness testimony, it’s more a case of coerced perjury. That seems like a fair point.