AG: Justice Wheeler Won't Step Down From Sanborn Case

May 10, 2017

The judge presiding over the Anthony Sanborn murder case has declined a motion to recuse herself.

The Maine Attorney General’s office made the request due to concerns over Justice Joyce Wheeler’s impartiality. The developing case calls into question a Sanborn’s conviction, handed down nearly 30 years ago.

The request is based on two statements she made during a bail hearing for Sanborn in April.

“This is only a bail hearing, so I cannot apologize to you, Mr. Sanborn, at this time. All I can say is that there is a reasonable likelihood that you will succeed on the petition and I am going to set bail,” Wheeler said, in one of the two statements.

The state took issue with Wheeler’s near-apology, claiming it created a perception that she had already decided in favor of Sanborn.

In 1992, Sanborn was convicted of murdering Jessica Briggs on a Portland pier. Both were 16 at the time, and a key witness in the case, Hope Cady, who was 13 at the time, claimed to have seen the murder.

Sanborn has maintained his innocence, and at the April bail hearing, Cady recanted her original testimony. She said that Portland police detectives coerced her into testifying against Sanborn.

Sanborn’s defense attorney also argued that the state withheld evidence that Cady had vision problems.

Wheeler granted Sanborn bail. But he still awaits a hearing to determine if his murder conviction should be dismissed or reversed, or if he should be granted a new trial. And it appears Justice Wheeler will be the presiding judge in that hearing because she has declined to step down.

“Generally speaking, statements made in the context of judicial proceedings are not enough to trigger a recusal,” says Maine School of Law associate professor Dmitry Bam.

Bam says the judicial code of conduct requires judges to be impartial and maintain the appearance of impartiality. But statements that lead to a judge’s recusal are typically made outside of court.

That’s the argument defense attorney Amy Fairfield used to oppose the request for Wheeler’s recusal. In court documents, Fairfield said Wheeler was required to prejudge Sanborn’s case in order to determine whether he should be granted bail.

Bam doesn’t take issue with Wheeler’s statements during the hearing, or her decision not to step down. But he says there is a larger problem with how recusals are handled.

“I do think the process itself is somewhat problematic that a potentially biased judge is really the one who makes a decision on whether or not the judge is biased,” he says.

In this case, the attorney general’s office says it accepts Justice Wheeler’s response to its recusal request and is prepared to move forward. A hearing to determine Sanborn’s fate is scheduled for July.