Sentenced to 70 years in prison for the 1989 killing of a 16-year-old girl in Portland, Anthony Sanborn is a free man. In the wake of a key witness’s recantation, prosecutors agreed Wednesday that the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and reduced it to time served.
The deal capped 21 days of post-conviction review in Cumberland County Superior Court, which Sanborn’s lawyers won after they alleged that key witnesses may have been coerced and evidence withheld in his trial for the murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs on Portland’s waterfront. Amy Fairfield, his lawyer and champion this past year, told the court that Sanborn would accept the time-served option prosecutors presented Tuesday afternoon. But she made another point, too.
“It’s a closed case. He does understand that. But as he does state in his amended petition, he vehemently and steadfastly maintains his innocence in this case,” she said.
Tears and hugs broke out among Sanborn’s friends and family. And then Sanborn asked for a moment to thank Justice Joyce Wheeler for her integrity.
“To have the guts that you did, and I don’t know where your stance is or what you believe in, and I know at this stage you can’t tell me, but thank you for being someone, because I didn’t believe in anything in the system, so thank you,” he said.
“Thank you. I understand you’ve lost your faith in the justice system, and my only goal is to give everyone a sense that justice was done and to give everyone a fair trial, fair hearing, and I hope that you leave here with that conviction today,” Wheeler said.
In an apparent concession that the original sentence was not just, the plea deal included an unusual statement from prosecutors — that in light of U.S. case law, Sanborn’s original sentence amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
But outside the courthouse, Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam insisted Sanborn was a murderer.
“Mr. Sanborn remains today as he was after the jury’s verdict in 1992, guilty of the murder of Jessica Briggs, because Mr. Sanborn chose to withdraw his claims after hearing the testimony of the witnesses in this hearing,” she said.
The victim’s stepmother, Susan Briggs, told reporters she was satisfied with the outcome, because Sanborn remained a convicted murderer in the eyes of the law.
Fairfield doesn’t see it that way. She said she would have liked to reject the prosecution’s deal and continue the case.
“The moment you met him it was just, ‘You gotta get him out.’ And so what followed wasn’t exactly what I wanted to see happen but, again, I am just so elated for him. He deserves to be happy and to be free,” she said.
In the end, she said, Sanborn, now 47, was exhausted and just wanted to live his life. Fairfield and her co-counsel said they and their client were not yet ready to consider whether they might seek redress or compensation through a lawsuit against the state.
This story was originally published Nov. 8, 2017 at 2:50 p.m. ET.