LEWISTON — An attorney who formerly represented an Auburn man convicted of murdering a 4-year-old girl in an oven 31 years ago said he has no doubt that John Amos Lane had not been criminally responsible for his actions.

“I can tell you that he was not mentally right at the time (of the incident), even though the court found otherwise,” Portland attorney Tom Connolly said Monday after hearing that Lane, 66, had filed a petition in federal court seeking a new trial.

U.S. Magistrate John Nivison recommended last week that Lane be allowed the chance to argue he was too mentally ill to file an appeal for a new trial sooner.

“He obviously drafted a very good petition, no question,” Connolly said of Lane’s 35-page document citing seven points of constitutional grounds supporting his petition for post-conviction review.

“In order to get past that hurdle, he had some help from somebody good and/or he’s got a mental capacity radically different than it was before,” Connolly said.

Connolly said the magistrate apparently found constitutional requirements “that are new, that are good, that are strong and that are right.”

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The state, represented by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, is expected to respond to Nivison’s recommendation.

Connolly said he wasn’t surprised that Lane was pursuing his case. He had contacted Connolly about eight years ago, seeking documents that Connolly said he provided to Lane. He calls and sends letters to Connolly from time to time.

“I still have boxes of stuff” relating to Lane’s case, Connolly said.

“The case is profound,” Connolly said. “It’s a big thing in Maine history. It’s a big thing in the law. It, in part, represented to the Maine people a shocking aberration of our normative culture . . . just a terrible, terrible thing.”

Connolly said Lane clearly had been impaired by mental illness before and after his trial.

In his 1985 trial, Lane was found guilty of murder for placing Angela Palmer in an oven in a Main Street, Auburn, apartment on Oct. 27, 1984. He turned up the heat and put a chair under the handle of the oven door so it couldn’t be opened from the inside. He claimed the girl, the daughter of his girlfriend, was a demon.

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“No question he had been in a very, very bad mental state for a very long period of time,” Connolly said. “My understanding is that he had not had a treatment program that was effective, and then a series of psychotropic medications that were provided to him, and those medications were effective, belying the state saying he was not psychotic, that he was just bad.”

Lane’s dramatic “awakening” occurred around the time he contacted Connolly, apparently responding to the effect of a new regimen of psychotropic medications, the Portland lawyer said.

“The effectiveness of the treatment would speak to the fact that he really was severely mentally ill,” Connolly said.

Five of Lane’s seven grounds for relief in his petition in U.S. District Court claim he was denied effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The sixth ground for relief in Lane’s petition relates to Lane’s attorney, who appealed his sentence.

Connolly said he believes that he only represented Lane on direct appeal of the outcome of his trial. Lane claims as his seventh ground for relief that Connolly “made no attempts to ensure that (Lane) filed a timely post-conviction review appeal, despite counsel’s firsthand knowledge of Lane’s persistent psychosis and incapacitation due to anti-psychotic and psychotropic drugs.”

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That means once Lane’s appeal was denied by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Connolly failed to preserve Lane’s post-conviction right based on Lane’s lack of competency.

“There’s no legal requirement that counsel provide post-conviction review to a defendant,” Connolly said. “It’s a good issue, but I don’t think that dog will hunt.”

Lane’s trial attorney, E. James Burke, who is a professor at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, declined to comment Monday on Lane’s petition.

Connolly said Burke called at trial two expert witnesses with impressive credentials who testified for the defense about Lane’s mental state at the time of the assault.

“The whole essence of the case was that he was not mentally right at the time of the incident,” Connolly said, noting Burke put forth an insanity defense.

Elliott Epstein, a local attorney who wrote a book about the events leading up to the incident, said Monday, “I certainly think (Lane) was very well represented at trial.”

“People are probably scratching their heads and wondering why this is resurfacing almost 30 years after the fact,” Epstein said. “That is certainly a very unusual occurrence.”

A 1996 federal statute provided Lane with an avenue to bring this petition, Epstein said. Despite Nivison’s recommendation, “it doesn’t mean Lane’s going to be successful” in seeking a new trial, Epstein said, calling his case a “long shot.”

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