PORTLAND, Maine — A local TV station and Maine’s public broadcaster are fighting subpoenas for raw footage and recordings from April newscasts related to the ongoing legal push to clear Anthony Sanborn of a 1992 murder conviction.
On May 9, Sanborn’s lawyer filed motions with the Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court seeking to have a judge order WGME-TV and Maine Public to turn over “all broadcast materials generated and/or utilized during production” of a news segments interviewing the former-prosecutor who handled Sanborn’s trial for the 1989 murder of Jessica Briggs.
In the filings, lawyer Amy Fairfield writes that former Assistant Attorney General Pamela Ames made statements to the media in late April that discussed “substantive evidentiary issues” and seeks the release of the material that aired on television and radio “as well as outtakes.”
The unusual motions have the potential to have a “chilling effect” on the Maine media’s ability to gather and report the news, according to the two broadcasters, and pit their First Amendment rights against the claims of a man who has spent nearly three decades behind bars for a murder he maintains he did not commit.
“I strongly believe that it is not the role of the free press to become a tool to do investigative work and fact gathering for the legal profession or government agencies and offices,” WGME news director Kathy Reynolds wrote in an affidavit.
In her court filings, Fairfield wrote that Ames made statements to the media containing “information that are crucial (sic) necessary for [Sanborn’s] ability to effectively and adequately prepare his case.”
But in a joint filing by Preti Flaherty First Amendment lawyer Sigmund Schutz, WGME and Maine Public ask the court to quash Fairfield’s subpoenas, arguing that compelling them to turn over reporting material is unnecessary and would discourage people from speaking to the press.
In early April, the key witness in Sanborn’s murder conviction recanted her original testimony, saying Ames and two Portland police detectives had coached and coerced it out of her.
Hope Cady’s explosive statement led to Sanborn being released on bail after nearly three decades behind bars, though his post conviction review hearing is ongoing.
Now a lawyer in private practice in Waterville, Ames had not discussed these events publicly before giving an interview to the Bangor Daily News on April 20. In that interview and subsequent ones with WGME and Maine Public, Ames denied that she’d coerced Cady’s testimony and said she remains convinced of Sanborn’s guilt.
The WGME and Maine Public broadcasts interviewing Ames are still available online. It is not clear from the court filing what material Fairfield hopes to find in the outtakes. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Ames told the BDN on Thursday she stands by what she said in the interviews and does not know of any unbroadcasted material that is relevant to the case.
This was echoed by the heads of news for WGME and Maine Public, who said in court filings that it is their practice to publish the most newsworthy parts of interviews and that the precedent set by Fairfield’s motion could subject them to “countless other subpoenas in fishing expeditions for irrelevant or minimally relevant materials.”
Keith Shortall, Maine Public’s director of news and public affairs, said in his 27 years with the organization he could only recall one other subpoena seeking audio outtakes.
In apparent anticipation of the media outlets’ line of argument, Fairfield wrote in her court filing that Sanborn’s Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine witnesses “overcomes any First Amendment privilege” cited by WGME and Maine Public.
The media outlets, however, argued this claim is spurious because Ames has agreed to testify and could be questioned during future hearings that are set to begin on July 24.
This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.