Last week, Portland, Maine, judge Joyce Wheeler released 44-year-old Anthony Sanborn, Jr., on bail set at $25,000 after serving 25 years in prison. The overturned conviction came after Hope Cady, a blind eyewitness, whose testimony helped send Sanborn to jail for murder, said police had pressured her to testify against him and she didn’t actually witness the crime. Sanborn was serving at 70 year sentence for the killing of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs, a runaway who he had dated briefly at the time of the crime. Cady recanted her statement in the recent hearing, which had ultimately led to the man’s conviction. As the sole eyewitness, her testimony was key to the prosecutor’s case.
Cady said she was legally blind at the time of the 1989 murder and wasn’t even in the area at the time the incident occurred. She said she testified against Sanborn after allegedly being coerced by detectives and a state prosecutor. Cady says investigators shouted at her, called her inappropriate names and even threatened to send her to prison if she didn’t comply. “They basically told me what to say,” Cady, said of the detectives after she finally broke down. She acted as a “blind eyewitness”, added she could barely see the lawyer standing about seven feet from her in the Portland courtroom let alone serve as a reliable eyewitness to a crime and that Sanborn deserved to go free.
The detectives have denied Cady’s allegations. However, the blind eyewitness and her recantation was supported by the notes of a social worker who was appointed as Cady’s guardian just weeks before the trial. Cady’s medical history and her caseworker’s notes were not released to Sanborn’s attorneys prior to the trial, which may have eliminated her as a reliable witness. A note in the prosecutor’s file from a police report urging that three other witness statements not be turned over to the defense was also kept hidden. A profiler for Sanborn’s attorneys says the crime may actually be linked to a serial killer and that this person was left free to going about killing others while Sanborn was doing time.
Thursday’s bail hearing is part of a bid to overturn Sanborn’s conviction. Maine Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber still asked Justice Joyce Wheeler to keep Sanborn in prison while the state prepared rebuttal witnesses after Wheeler had already made her decision, but the judge denied this request. Studies have shown that mistaken eyewitnesses have played a role in more than 70 percent of the convictions overturned by DNA testing, which is far more reliable.
DNA testing is often introduced to overturn wrongful convictions. Some of these convictions were made prior to its widespread use. Two standards are used to determine the admissibility of DNA evidence, which are termed the “Frye standard” and the “Daubert standard.” The Frye standard came from a 1923 case, Frye v. United States, where the court ruled that, to be admissible, evidence must be “sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” The Daubert standard, which originated from the 1993 case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, states that evidence must have sufficient scientific validity and reliability to be admitted as relevant “scientific knowledge” that would “assist the trier of fact.” One thing’s for sure, DNA beats the testimony of a blind eyewitness.