PORTLAND, Maine – The key witness in a 1989 murder that sent a teenage boy to prison for decades recanted Thursday and accused authorities of coercing her testimony, a stunning declaration that led a judge to set bail, a packed courtroom to gasp in surprise and the defendant's wife to sink to her knees.
Anthony Sanborn, who has served 27 years in prison for the murder of his childhood 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, then 16, as the killer.
"They basically told me what to say," Cady said.
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.
Cady's stunning admission came in a standing-room-only courtroom packed with Sanborn's supporters, including family members and friends.
"Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to go forward on a case based on her testimony," Justice Joyce Wheeler told the courtroom before setting $25,000 bail. "It has been conceded that she is, and was a material witness in this case. She's the only eyewitness in this case."
The judge said she'll have further proceedings before deciding whether to grant a motion to set aside the conviction and order a new trial.
Sanborn's wife, Michelle, sank to her knees and wept as others huddled with her.
"I just 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.
The defendant's family and friends were bailing him out Thursday afternoon.
The defense had asked for the hearing because of new evidence. Sanborn was convicted as an adult of the murder and sentenced to 70 years in prison.
Briggs' throat was slit and she was stabbed repeatedly before being thrown in Portland Harbor. Officials zeroed in on street kids, including Briggs' boyfriend, Sanborn.
Cady was the only witness, and she testified at trial in 1992 that she saw a group of boys surround the victim and then saw Sanborn stab her.
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.
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.