Did Police Use a Blind Eyewitness to Convict an Innocent Man?

The only eyewitness to testify at the murder trial was blind. Another witness has recanted his testimony. Anthony Sanborn Jr. is still serving 70 years for a murder he says he never committed.

Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast

The only eyewitness to give testimony at Anthony Sanborn Jr.’s murder trial was legally blind. Prosecutors had no physical evidence linking Sanborn to the crime. After nine days in court, a jury convicted Sanborn of the killing.

Sanborn was 16 in May 1989, when divers pulled Jessica Briggs’s body from the ocean. The girl, also 16, had been one of the street kids who roamed Portland, Maine’s parks and malls that spring, a group of students and runaways who stayed out late riding bikes and sleeping on their friends’ couches. She and Sanborn had dated briefly, and hung out with the same friends. When police began eyeing Sanborn in the slaying, their investigation turned toward these Portland teenagers and their murky accounts of the days surrounding the murder.

But investigators manipulated the children’s often-conflicting narratives, dooming Sanborn to 70 years in prison for a crime that, his attorney claims in a new motion for bail filed last week, he did not commit.

Sanborn’s attorney points to three witnesses crucial to his 1992 conviction. The first was a young, visually impaired girl who claimed to have witnessed the killing. By the time of the trial, she was legally blind. She later told a private investigator that her vision had been impaired at the time of the killing, and that she believed Sanborn’s case needed to return to court.

The second witness was a man whom Sanborn’s attorney alleges was threatened with charges in an unrelated case if he did not implicate Sanborn. He had previously given on-the-record testimony in Sanborn’s favor.

The third witness was one of Sanborn’s friends who gave testimony linking Sanborn to the crime, but who later recanted his testimony, telling a private investigator that he had lied in trial and during the investigation under the threat that police would arrest him instead.

Years after Sanborn’s conviction, another man associated with the circle of Portland youth confessed to Briggs’ murder during an interview with the FBI. The man was never charged. Sanborn remains in prison. Now, Sanborn’s wife and legal team say, it’s time for him to leave.

Sanborn’s case began in the early hours of May 24, 1989, with a gruesome discovery. Employees at an industrial dock on the Portland waterfront found a pair of women’s shoes, a pack of cigarettes, and a lone earring next a pool of blood. A trail of blood led police to the ocean, where police divers later dredged Briggs’s body from under the dock. She had been disemboweled, cut open in a Jack the Ripper-like slaying. Investigators found semen on her underwear.

But DNA testing was limited at the time, physical evidence was otherwise scant, and the murder weapon would never be discovered.

Amy Fairfield, Sanborn’s current attorney, said she still does not know what made investigators narrow their focus on Sanborn. “That’s the $64,000 question,” she told The Daily Beast in a telephone conversation.

“There were over a hundred interviews conducted by the Portland Police Department, and the sum and substance… was that there was no shortage of suspects who may have actually killed Jessica Briggs,” Fairfield wrote in the motion for bail. “It is completely unclear if, when and how many of these individuals PPD actually ruled out as being Briggs’ murderer.”

Sanborn had been a known entity to police after he previously failed to show up at an unrelated murder trial where he was scheduled to testify as a witness. And while Sanborn had an alibi — his father testified in court that Sanborn had gone to his room around 8:30 the night of the murder and emerged around 9:30 the next morning — the father conceded that he had not checked on Sanborn overnight, and that, despite Sanborn lacking a key to the apartment, it would have been possible for him to leave the door unlocked and slip back inside the following morning.

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Investigators began looking for evidence against Sanborn, Fairfield alleges.

“Acting as a united front, [two detectives and a prosecutor] waged a campaign of intimidation and deal-making in order to manufacture the testimonial evidence they needed to put Sanborn on trial,” Fairfield wrote in the suit, alleging that the investigators “built their case, brick by brick, based on what they wanted to be true, rather than on the evidence they actually had before them.”

Neither detective nor the prosecutor could be reached for comment. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is currently reviewing the motion for bail, and plans to deny it, a spokesperson told the Portland Press-Herald.

Shortly after the murder, police began speaking with a 13-year-old named Hope Cady, who frequented the same circles as Sanborn and Briggs. She was initially reluctant to speak with investigators, and at one point “walked out of the station,” an investigator testified at Sanborn’s trial. But police continued questioning her over the following years. In logs obtained by Sanborn’s defense team, Cady’s Department of Health and Human Services caseworker Margaret Bragdon noted her concern with these interviews.

“They questioned her for about 2 hours yesterday-she got angry because they were rude,” Bragdon wrote in a March 1990 log, noting that one investigator allegedly called Cady a “‘fucking bitch,’” and that police had pressured her for Sanborn’s full name. Cady told police that she had seen Sanborn and Briggs arguing the night of the murder.

Her story would change multiple times over the years of interviews. At one point, according to an investigator’s May 1992 report, Cady told police that a group of teens including Sanborn had stabbed Briggs to death She was the only person to claim to have seen the killing.

But Cady’s ability to have seen an argument was central to the case. Cady had a degenerative visual condition that rendered her legally blind by the time of trial. She had been diagnosed with a visual impairment before the murder, leading Bragdon to worry about the teenager’s ability to testify as the only eyewitness in the case.

“Dct. Daniels is going to make Hope testify,” Bragdon wrote in a log shortly before the trial. “Something definitely wrong with her optic nerves in both eyes. Need to pinpoint what she can see and how she sees… Daniels talked to her for over 3 hours. When Hope came out she appeared pale and shaken and said she wouldn’t talk to him anymore and she wouldn’t testify either.”

The social worker appeared interested in finding legal representation for Cady, whom she seemed to believe was concerned about being implicated in the case. “Spoke to Richard—we can get a lawyer if: 1) Hope is charged, 2) Hope needs to talk to one ahead of time if she thinks she might be charged.”

At trial, a prosecutor questioned Cady’s ability to have seen the murder.

“Hold on just a minute. Hope, you have developed a vision problem; is that right?” the prosecutor asked, according to trial transcripts.

“Yes, I have,” Cady answered.

“Is that far away or close up?”

“Pretty much everything,” Cady said.

“Everything?” the prosecutor asked. “Back in 1989 did you have a problem?”

“No,” Cady said.

In subsequent years, Cady has dismissed her testimony about her vision. Fairfield’s filing includes a transcript of a 2016 interview between Cady and a private investigator, during which Cady says she was visually impaired since childhood. Why did she testify that her vision had been unimpaired at the time of the murder, the investigator asks.

“That makes me wonder. My mind is going fifty different directions,” Cady said, trying to recall what prompted her answer in court. “I’m wondering, why is there a gap? Like someone punching a hole in your memory. It sounds like they need to take this back to court and figure it out. My head is starting to spin.”

She told the investigator that she had been prescribed glasses at the time of the murder, but that she seldom wore them.

“I just remember having them and losing them, having them and losing them. But in that picture I didn’t have them,” she told the investigator, pointing to a picture of her testifying at Sanborn’s trial. “Didn’t anyone notice? Something doesn’t feel right.”

Investigators had documentation of Cady’s visual impairments, Fairfield alleges. But rather than turning this information over to Sanborn’s defense team before his trial, as should have been required during the discovery process, prosecutors suppressed the evidence of Cady’s visual impairments and presented her as a reliable witness, Fairfield claims.

She highlights two other key witnesses whose testimony she believes to have been coerced.

The first was Gerry Rossi, an adult who at one point lived with Sanborn as a roommate. In court, Rossi testified that Sanborn confessed to Briggs’s murder. The testimony came as a direct contradiction to his repeated claims during a police interview in March 1990. “Whether he killed the girl or not, he didn’t tell me,” Rossi told investigators at the time, according to a transcript including in Fairfield’s filing.

At trial, Sanborn’s attorney claimed that police had offered Rossi immunity for an alleged crime if he testified against Sanborn. “It goes directly to his bias, Judge, the fact that he knows he can get a free ride as long as he testifies the way the state wants him to,” Sanborn’s then-lawyer argued.

Fairfield subscribes to the same argument. “Upon information and belief, Rossi was offered immunity for his testimony against Tony,” she alleged in her filing.

The final witness Fairfield highlights in her case was another one of Sanborn’s friends, who claimed to have spoken with Sanborn the night of the murder. The boy, Glenn Brown, told police that Sanborn and Briggs had briefly rekindled their relationship the night before the killing, but that they had fought and Briggs had left.

The prosecution used this testimony to suggest Sanborn’s motive. “Now Tony [Sanborn]’s mad at Jessica [Briggs],” a prosecutor said in trial, explaining the murder’s alleged timeline. “She had left him and had taken off from him that morning, and he was out looking for her.”

Brown also told police that Sanborn had purchased a new knife that day, although by his own admission, Sanborn had “a lot of knives.” Many Portland street kids did. When divers pulled Briggs’s body from the water, they found her own knife, a blade she had named “Butchie.” It hadn’t saved her.

Brown’s initial report to police had chronological contradictions, and at one point he appeared to confuse the events of two different days. Then, in June 2016, Brown recanted his testimony altogether.

“I lied when I testified in Sanborn’s trial,” he told a private investigator on Sanborn’s legal team, telling the investigator that the police report attributed to him was “99 percent false,” and that he had been “pressured to lie to the PPD or else they were going to arrest me.”

During the trial, Brown testified in accordance with a written version of the report he had allegedly made to police. But Brown was functionally illiterate at the time, and had never read the written version of the report that police claimed he made. In court, he struggled to read the police statement, a fact the prosecutor noted.

“Before I testified in court, I was told by [the prosecutor] that if I didn’t testify to the written statement, I would be charged with a crime,” Brown told Fairfield’s private investigator, according to an affidavit.

Contrary to his testimony, Brown had not seen Sanborn the night of Briggs’s murder, he told the private investigator.

Fairfield alleges that other teenager’s interviews with police might also have been manipulated. Her filing includes a stack of scanned transcripts of police interviews with Sanborn’s friends. On top of the transcripts are two sticky notes.

“Statements not sent as discovery per request of Det. Young 4/26/90,” reads one. “To be changed to narrative reports,” reads the other.

The sticky notes, in the prosecutor’s handwriting, show investigators in the act of suppressing evidence, Fairfield alleges. The statements, which a detective requested to be withheld from the discovery process, were long, first-person transcriptions of the teenagers’ statements to police. Instead they were rewritten into shorter, third-person “narrative reports” summarizing the interviews.

“The prosecutor basically fed everybody their answers,” Fairfield told The Daily Beast. One long interview was “condensed into two sentences... I’ve never seen anything like that. Or maybe I have, but I don’t know about it.”

Furthermore, one former Portland youth later confessed to Briggs’s murder. In 2005, a federal inmate who had associated with the same Portland teens as Sanborn and Briggs told FBI investigators that he was responsible for Briggs’s death. The man claimed to have murdered Briggs with a rug-cutting tool and tossed her in the ocean, according to an FBI report including in Fairfield’s filing. The man later recanted the confession, telling investigators that he had only wanted to increase his sentence in order to move to another part of the prison.

Fairfield claims there are still other suspects police could have investigated instead of Sanborn. “There was a woman who kept calling in saying she works next to a woman whose relative is the actual murderer,” she told The Daily Beast. “The detectives should have been following up on that. Instead the detective called the coworker, left three messages and called it a day because she didn’t call him back.”

Since his arrest, Sanborn has been a model inmate, his wife and Fairfield say.

“I think Tony has managed to make a bad situation good for him and the world around him. He lives in one in the darkest environments,” his wife Michelle told The Daily Beast. But “if you were to ask staff at the prison, they’d say the prison is a better place because of Tony.”

One such staffer is Garrett Vail, an English teacher at the prison. “This prison is a much better place because of Tony, who ironically, shouldn’t even be there,” Vail wrote in a character statement included in Fairfield’s filing.

Even while awaiting trial, Sanborn worked writing the local jail’s newsletter and teaching computer classes in their education department. After his transfer to federal prison Sanborn worked teaching adult literacy classes to other inmates, and today teaches math and family courses.

“Just today he had a group of men graduate from his long-distance dad program, where he teaches people how to maintain their relationships inside prison,” Michelle said on Friday. Sanborn’s program is the only one of its kind run without a paid staffer, she said. She remembers one case when Sanborn helped reunite a father with his family by encouraging the young man to send money for his children to buy crayons for school.

“That is what Tony loves to do,” Michelle said. “Since the beginning, he’s been trying to help people. He’s a wonderful man.”