A man who has spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit was in Cumberland County Court Tuesday for a hearing to determine whether he can go free.
Anthony Sanborn and his attorneys allege that he was convicted after the state mishandled evidence and threatened witnesses in his original trial. But the state argues that a jury reached the correct verdict 25 years ago.
The crime at the center of the case is the murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs. In 1989, she was stabbed to death on what’s now known as the Maine State Pier, and her body was dumped into the harbor. Three years later, Briggs’ ex-boyfriend Anthony Sanborn, who was also 16 at the time of the murder, was convicted of the crime.
Sanborn has always professed his innocence, and last April, he was released on bail after a key witness recanted her testimony. At Sanborn’s postconviction hearing at Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court on Tuesday, his attorney Amy Fairfield said police and prosecutors targeted Sanborn early in their investigation and suppressed evidence and manufactured facts to win a conviction.
“They built their case block by block, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, and they made it fit,” she said.
Fairfield accused the state of a “systematic obliteration” of Sanborn’s due process rights. She reminded the court that Sanborn has vehemently denied any involvement in Briggs’ murder. Having served 27 years of a 70-year sentence, Fairfield said the now 45-year-old Sanborn deserves to to be freed.
“So we’re asking the court to vacate the jury’s verdict, and we’re asking the court to find Anthony Sanborn actually innocent because he is actually innocent,” she said.
The state denies any wrongdoing in the case. In his opening statements, assistant attorney general Paul Rucha said if the defense is correct that Sanborn was wrongfully convicted, it would indicate a massive and unlikely cover-up by police, the attorney general’s office and others involved in the case.
“To believe that, your honor, you have to believe a lot of good people are involved in doing something to this man that people have never met,” he said.
Rucha said that Sanborn was a reasonable suspect to pursue because he was Briggs’ ex-boyfriend and he could be placed around the pier the night of the murder. In terms of evidence that was mishandled or suppressed, Rucha cautioned that current standards for record-keeping in investigations, which use computers, should not be applied to a 30-year-old case.
He also emphasized that evidence has already been presented in this case, and a jury delivered a finding.
“There were 12 that found him guilty in 1992, and we would ask that the court respect that verdict,” he said.
Sanborn and his attorneys face a high burden to undue a nearly 30-year-old conviction. Justice Joyce Wheeler said that it’s not enough for Sanborn to merely show, with the evidence presented in this hearing, that a different verdict is possible.
“There must be a probability that a new trial would result in a different verdict,” she said.
Wheeler also noted that the results of the hearing could have a profound effect on a number of affected parties: Briggs’ family, who thought they had closure, Anthony Sanborn and his family and, finally, the public.
“I hope this proceeding will be one in which the confidence of the justice system is underscored and sustained. And that confidence is not lost because of what may or may not be done here,” she said.
The first witness, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who was part of the prosecution team in Sanborn’s original trial, testified that he never saw police or other prosecutors pressure witnesses. He also read a transcript of a 2015 interview with Hope Cady — the witness who recently recanted her testimony - in which she said Sanborn was not innocent.
More than 60 other witnesses are listed for the hearing, which will run through Oct. 25. Then Wheeler will decide whether Sanborn’s conviction will stand or be thrown out.
This story was originally published Oct. 10, 2017.