Free but still convicted, Sanborn at peace with deal that put prison behind him

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Anthony and Michelle Sanborn lace up their skates Thursday at Rollodrome in Auburn, a day after a deal in his post-conviction review released him from the rest of his 70-year sentence. He said, “I woke up this morning and I thought, ‘I’m free, I don’t have to worry about going to the jail again.” (Joel Page/Portland Press Herald)

PORTLAND — Anthony H. Sanborn Jr. says he cut a deal and walked away from his post-conviction review hearing because he could not stomach the thought of going back to prison if he lost, and he wanted his ordeal in the court system to be over.

Meanwhile, the state Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said it was prepared to retry Sanborn, believed his original conviction was and is sound, and that nothing in the hearings has given the office any reason to re-examine other cases handled by the officers who investigated the murder of Jessica Briggs, for which Sanborn was convicted in 1992.

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In a phone interview Thursday, Sanborn said he felt as if a load had been lifted from his chest knowing that he is no longer in jeopardy of losing his freedom. The deal, finalized Wednesday afternoon, resentenced Sanborn to time served, but also means the murder conviction remains intact.

“I woke up this morning and I thought, ‘I’m free, I don’t have to worry about going to the jail again.’ No one has to hurt anymore.”

While he had hoped all along to clear his name and wipe the murder conviction from his record, Sanborn said he is at peace with his decision.

The deal was first presented to him Tuesday afternoon, after the subject came up in a judicial conference with Justice Joyce Wheeler. That conference was held after Hope Cady, the state’s star eyewitness in 1992, affirmed her recantation of her original trial testimony.

Sanborn weighed the deal, going back and forth in his mind – and with his wife – until Wednesday morning, when court proceedings were delayed as attorneys continued to huddle with each other and with Sanborn.

CONFLICTING VIEWS OF HEARING

The top criminal prosecutor for the Attorney General’s Office, Lisa Marchese, said the underlying principles of the deal had been known to both parties as a possible resolution for months. She also suggested that the hearings, which were in their fifth week of testimony, may not have been going Sanborn’s way.

“I don’t think the hearing was going quite the way that Mr. Sanborn had hoped it would go,” Marchese said. “I think there’s a lot of evidence to demonstrate that there was not prosecutorial misconduct, there was not bad faith in any of the detectives.”

However, one of Sanborn’s attorneys did not believe their case was headed for defeat at the hearing.

“I think we put on a very strong case for misconduct, multiple Brady violations and perjury, and I believe we had made our case for that,” Amy Fairfield said. “I can’t speak to why they did (the deal), but I think that they were worried about the risk involved – that Tony would have been exonerated.

“I think a retrial in this case would have been near impossible for the state, because the investigation was so flawed and so corrupt that you could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

The deal Sanborn accepted was an agreement for resentencing. He and his attorneys agreed to drop their claims that police and prosecutors framed him for Briggs’ murder. In exchange, the state agreed to support a request for Sanborn to be resentenced, conforming with U.S. Supreme Court doctrine holding that children convicted of murder must be sentenced differently than adults. Sanborn originally was sentenced to 70 years in Maine State Prison.

The outcome, while a relief for Sanborn, has still left him deeply mistrustful of the court system, with the exception of Justice Wheeler.

“I have the utmost respect for her,” Sanborn said of the active-retired justice. “Right from the start she had an impossible decision to make and she had the intestinal fortitude to make it. If she had a final decision, it wouldn’t even be a roll of the dice because I believe 1,000 percent she believed in me, but not everyone else does.”

STATE STILL CONFIDENT IN CONVICTION

Marchese, meanwhile, said Thursday she believes Sanborn’s conviction was solid.

“It is my view that (Sanborn) was properly convicted in 1992, that his counsel acted appropriately and defended him appropriately and (former detectives) Jim Daniels and Danny Young and (former prosecutor) Pam Ames did not do what was alleged that they did. I’ve known these people all of my career and I do not believe for a second that they did all of the things that it was alleged.”

Marchese declined to discuss whether she believed there were defects in the original case and trial.

“I’m not going to go there with you on this. There are so many details and allegations. I’m not the one who should be talking to you about that,” Marchese said. “There was nothing that amounted to a violation that would have changed the outcome of the trial. Let’s say Judge Wheeler ordered a new trial, we believe Anthony Sanborn would have been convicted again.”

Marchese said the Attorney General’s Office, as a practice, has embraced the process of correcting mistakes when they come to the office’s attention. In 2015, for instance, when a sweeping FBI investigation found that analysts overstated the certainty of comparative hair and fiber evidence, Marchese’s office acted.

“We notified every inmate that we can find, that would have been impacted by that, and let them know about that,” Marchese said.

But she said her office would not consider re-examining cases worked by Daniels and Young, the retired detectives who investigated Sanborn’s case. To do so would acknowledge that either officer committed some wrongdoing, which she said was not the case. Although the investigation was not perfect, any deficiencies did not lead to an unjust result, she said.

“I don’t want to come off to you that everything was perfect here,” Marchese said. “But I have a hard time with some of the allegations that are just to me – I don’t know how much you follow Danny Young’s career, but he is one of the finest detectives I have ever met. And some of the allegations are offensive to me. I have personally done several cases with him, and I’ve always found him to be honest, hardworking and non-threatening.”

DID THE JUSTICE SYSTEM WORK?

Marchese said the hearings process was not a waste of time – it was necessary to sort out whether the allegations Sanborn made had merit, and also served to show the public that there is a process for examining whether justice was done.

“I don’t want the public to be left with any perception that our system is broken, because I don’t think it is,” Marchese said. “We have processes. He had this hearing. This result couldn’t have come to be unless (Sanborn) agreed to it. So the process works, and again, here it has worked.”

For Sanborn, those concerns are fading. He may never believe that justice was done in his case, but he and his wife are moving forward.

“It’s not justice, it’s not even close to justice, but at the same time, I want to pick up the pieces and move on,” Sanborn said. “It’s what I’ve always done my whole life. When I got a 70-year sentence for a murder I didn’t do, what choice did I have? I picked up the pieces and moved on.”

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  • Det Tom white

    Easy. Take a Polygraph.