PORTLAND, Maine >> The key witness in a murder that sent a teenage boy to prison for 27 years recanted today and accused authorities of coercing her testimony. The stunning declaration led a judge to set bail in the case, drawing a gasp from the packed courtroom and sending the defendant’s wife to her knees.
Tony Sanborn, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend, 16-year-old Jessica Briggs, dropped his head into his hands in apparent disbelief after Hope Cady testified that as a 13-year-old she was pressured by police and prosecutors into identifying Sanborn as the killer.
“They basically told me what to say,” Cady said.
Justice Joyce Wheeler said she’ll have further proceedings before deciding whether to grant a motion to set aside the conviction and order a new trial. She set bail at $25,000, which Sanborn’s family and friends posted later today to get him released.
“Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to go forward on a case based on her testimony,” Justice Joyce Wheeler told the courtroom before setting bail. “It has been conceded that she is, and was a material witness in this case. She’s the only eyewitness in this case.”
Cady said she had juvenile charges against her at the time, and authorities threatened to send her away for years. She said her vision wasn’t even good enough to have been able to make out what happened: It was later tested at 20/200, poor enough to be considered legally blind. Information about her vision was never provided to Sanborn’s defense team.
Cady’s stunning admission came in a standing-room-only courtroom packed with Sanborn’s supporters, including family members and friends.
Sanborn’s wife, Michelle, sank to her knees and wept after the ruling as others huddled with her.
“I just want to thank Justice Wheeler for being a woman of compassion and for doing the right thing, and giving me faith in our system,” she said afterward.
Tony Sanborn, now 44, had insisted over the years that he didn’t kill Briggs, and supporters say he somehow managed to avoid becoming bitter despite being convicted as an adult and sentenced to prison for 70 years. In prison, his conduct was exemplary, and he taught classes to fellow inmates. He wed Michelle about five years ago, and he had plenty of support today.
He entered the courtroom with tears in his eyes as the packed courtroom erupted in an ovation. His family and friends posted bail for him late this afternoon.
Griggs’ family left the courthouse without speaking to the media.
The defense had asked for the hearing because of new evidence in the gruesome killing.
Briggs’ throat was slit and she was stabbed repeatedly before being thrown in Portland Harbor. Officials zeroed in on street kids, including Briggs’ then-16-year-old boyfriend, Sanborn.
Cady, who was the only witness, testified at trial in 1992 that she saw a group of boys surround the victim and then saw Sanborn stab her. She claimed she’d watched the event unfold from a nearby pier.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber asked the judge to defer on setting bail until she could hear from the detectives and the prosecutor. He also said he’d have to recuse himself because Cady’s statements conflicted with his direct knowledge of the case.
The hearing will continue later this month.
A criminal profiler hired by the defense said the crime was so brutal that it pointed toward a serial killer as opposed to a crime of passion involving a teenager.
The area where the crime took place was frequented by shipyard workers, sailors and fishermen, in addition to street kids and others.