AUGUSTA, Maine – A criminal defense attorney suing Maine over information about the operation of the State Police Crime Laboratory alleges officials withhold documents highlighting “systemic errors” in the forensic laboratory.
The explosive allegations are at the center of a Maine Freedom of Access Act request made last year by Amy Fairfield’s Lyman law firm. It depends on the resignation of a crime lab employee in 2012 after allegedly lying to his superiors, prompting the state to warn the courts that the evidence presented by the employee may require a test of his credibility.
The state made thousands of pages available at Fairfield’s request through February, but withheld records that contained sensitive personal information that could violate privacy. Fairfield appealed to York County Superior Court, saying the documents submitted showed cases where the laboratory failed to provide credible evidence and misidentified problems.
In a file filed Tuesday, Fairfield said it is often difficult for the public to imagine “what parts of the criminal justice system are carried out in a vacuum” without someone reviewing job performance and how officials are following laws and guidelines.
“The Maine State Police Crime Lab is an example of this precise phenomenon, and the public interest in disclosing the records sought in this matter could not be more important,” she wrote.
The allegations stem from the scrutiny of Maine’s criminal justice system after a year of political turmoil related to national policing and local reform calls as lawmakers work on the state’s two-year budget. A soldier also sued his own agency in May for illegally collecting data and spying on certain people.
Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office argues against Fairfield’s appeal, saying in a January file that his office is still responding to her request. A Frey spokesman declined to comment on the documents. A spokesman for the Maine State Police did not return requests for comment.
Her last filing came after she summoned her case in late February from Lt. Col. Bill Harwood, who ran the crime lab, before becoming deputy chief of Maine State Police in 2018. She claims that Harwood misrepresented the circumstances that led to the departure of employee Todd Settlemire.
The state defies Harwood’s subpoena, alleging his virtual appearance at a Zoom hearing on Thursday’s case is an “undue burden” and the hearing will not focus on testimony. Fairfield argues that his testimony and knowledge of the laboratory are critical to her case.
Settlemire resigned in 2012 during an internal investigation after his genetic material was found on evidence in a DNA processing room he was not allowed to enter. This emerges from a Harwood file relating to a sex crime case that year. He initially said he didn’t go past the door, but Harwood announced that Settlemire had continued into the room.
This incident prompted the state to alert the courts in at least three criminal cases that court documents indicate that the evidence presented by Settlemire may need to be disclosed to defense lawyers. This type of disclosure is common in law enforcement following two landmark US Supreme Court rulings – Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. The United States – requiring prosecutors to disclose evidence that exonerates the accused or the credibility of others involved in the case People could question if they do information is essential.
However, according to Fairfield, the Maine courts have ordered documents related to the Settlemire issue to prevent sealed and banned attorneys from discussing it with others outside of their offices, meaning that “the information about adverse activity in the Crime Lab is not in the entire legal community were disseminated ”.
One such case was the 2012 conviction of Jay Mercier for the cold murder of a young Anson woman in 1980. An outside expert hired by Fairfield last year who represented Mercier in a post-conviction review showed Concerns about DNA on the jury were presented with evidence, and Mercier said “the lawsuit he has received has done him great injustice.”
In the Mercier case, the Fairfield file states that the defense was allowed to consult Settlemire’s personnel file. While largely prohibited from discussing it, the file has “turned the … Mercier case on its head” and “raised serious concerns about systemic errors in the laboratory,” she said.
Widespread problems in the laboratory could have a significant impact on the Maine criminal justice system. The laboratory deals with DNA tests and examinations for liquids remaining at the crime scene as well as with firearms examinations and shot residue determinations.
Fairfield, who heads the lawsuit on behalf of her son Keegan Fairfield, the paralegal at her company who filed the motion, is often defending clients in need. She represented Anthony Sanborn, convicted in 1989 of the murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs. Sanborn maintained his innocence and an important witness revoked the testimony. Sanborn then became the first convicted murderer in Maine history to be released on bail in a landmark 2017 agreement with the state.