Judges, sheriffs ask Maine Supreme Court to dismiss petition filed by woman held in jail without a lawyer

Angelina Dube Peterson is indigent and unable to afford to hire her own lawyer. She waited for weeks in jail to be assigned an attorney.
A drawn illustration of the inside of a courtroom. On the left, an inmate dressed in an orange jumpsuit is looking at the empty seat next to them where their defense attorney should be sitting. On the right, sitting at a separate table, is a prosecutor.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman for ProPublica.

A woman held in two Maine county jails while she did not have a lawyer is seeking relief from the state Supreme Court, but judges and sheriffs involved in her case have asked that her petition be dismissed now that she has been released from jail.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Wayne Douglas, who was promoted to the state’s highest court earlier this year after 21 years as a jurist, will decide if the woman and other unnamed indigent defendants that should have received court-appointed lawyers, but didn’t, can continue with their petition. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

The petition, known as a writ of habeas corpus, was filed on Sept. 20 by attorneys Rob Ruffner of Portland and Rory McNamara of York. 

Both lawyers defend indigent clients through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which is responsible for contracting with private lawyers to represent adults accused of crimes who are too poor to hire their own attorney. 

Ruffner and McNamara filed the petition pro bono amid mounting concern that some indigent defendants were not actually being appointed lawyers.

Maine is required by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to cover the cost of a lawyer for all indigent defendants charged with a crime and at risk of incarceration.

Angelina Dube Peterson, of Madawaska, is indigent and unable to afford the cost of hiring her own attorney. She has multiple pending felony drug trafficking charges and is facing a revocation of her probation.

District Court Judge Carrie Linthicum ordered for Peterson to be appointed a lawyer on July 12. But Linthicum could not identify any available lawyer and no attorney was named on court documents, records show.

Maine courts “urgently” needed defense lawyers for more than 100 cases that week in July, which MCILS leaders later said was linked to a ​​“critical shortage of attorneys,” the Monitor reported at the time

Peterson was among the dozens of defendants in need of a lawyer that were listed in 18 emails sent out by MCILS between July 20 and Aug. 23, according to the judge’s response to the petition. Peterson was assigned a defense attorney in late September, after Ruffner and McNamara filed the petition with the state Supreme Court.

Maine was the only state in the nation that did not employ public defenders until recently. MCILS hired five public defenders late last year, and is in the process of opening the state’s first public defender office.

The vast majority of indigent clients are represented by private lawyers who contract with MCILS. 

The ACLU of Maine sued MCILS in March 2022 for allegedly failing to create an effective indigent defense system. The litigation is ongoing.

State advisors to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also recommended in September that the U.S. Department of Justice open an investigation into Maine’s indigent defense system, The Monitor reported.

The two sheriffs named in the lawsuit sought to remove themselves from the case noting that Peterson was no longer incarcerated at either Aroostook or York county jails.

Peterson was released from jail on Sept. 23, bail records show. That was three days after her lawyers filed the petition with the state Supreme Court on Sept. 20.

Sheriff Peter Johnson “does not know of any person currently in custody of the Aroostook County Jail who has been denied counsel, been prevented from conferring with counsel, or otherwise was not appointed counsel when they were so entitled,” Aroostook County Attorney Peter Marchesi and Michael Lichtenstein wrote to the justice in response to the petition.

Johnson is “merely a custodian of the prisoners in the Aroostook County Jail” and does not set their bail or arrange the appointment of defense lawyers, according to the response. 

Sheriff William King of York County denied the allegations in the petition and through his attorney, Tyler Smith, and asked the court to dismiss the case.

“This case is not justiciable,” Smith wrote. “The only known party to this action has been appointed an attorney and was released on bail, so her claim is moot.”

Smith asserted that the incarcerated defendants on their own or with the help of a “lawyer of the day” should have raised the issue of their Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer during their initial appearance or by petitioning for a review of bail.

Smith claimed that the two attorneys, Ruffner and McNamara, could not file the case on behalf of Peterson or other indigent defendants, which judges had found to be indigent but who were not appointed lawyers. The defendants needed to file the petitions on their own, even if it was difficult, he said. 

“Difficulty, even significant difficulty, is not enough,” Smith wrote.

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Samantha Hogan

Samantha Hogan focuses on government accountability projects for The Maine Monitor. She joined the newsroom as its first full-time reporter in 2019 with Report for America. Samantha was named the 2021 Maine’s Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association, and spent 2020 reporting on Maine’s court system through the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Her reporting on county jails recording and listening to attorney-client phone calls won the Silver Gavel award from the American Bar Association and was also a semi-finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2023. Samantha previously worked for The Frederick News-Post and interned twice for The Washington Post.
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