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Shortage of public defenders in Maine allowed release of man who caused fiery standoff

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s shortage of public defenders allowed a man with a violent criminal past to be released on bail three days before he went to his ex-girlfriend’s Auburn home, where another man was killed before a hours of deadlock With police exchanging shots, two houses were burned to the ground and the attacker was eventually killed by a tactical team.

Leein Hinkley, 43, posted bail June 12 after a judge cited delays in finding a court-appointed attorney to lift Hinkley’s probation and lowered his bail to $1,500. Hinkley’s release angered law enforcement officials and the district attorney, who said public safety should outweigh delays in obtaining counsel for a man with a history of violent crimes.

“We recognize that the state must solve the attorney problem, but public safety cannot be compromised,” District Attorney Neil McLean Jr. said. Monday. He described Hinkley as ‘an extremely dangerous human being’.

Hinkley had served a 15-year prison sentence for repeatedly stabbing his domestic partner and a bystander who intervened. He was back in custody for choking his current girlfriend when he appeared in court on May 24, McLean said. District Judge Sarah Churchill set bail at $25,000, then lifted probation and reduced the bail amount after Hinkley spent 2 1/2 weeks in jail without an attorney.

A Maine State Police tactical team shot and killed Hinkley, who was on a rooftop, early Saturday after the standoff, which began after a person who fought with him apparently died. The gunfire and plumes of smoke during his rampage late Friday and early Saturday brought new fear to a region traumatized by the murder of 18 people at two locations in neighboring Lewiston last fall.

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On Monday, the justice system took the rare step of issuing a statement defending the judge after public criticism from the district attorney, the Maine Fraternal Order of Police and the Maine State Trooper’s Association.

Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said the state’s legal system will continue to “malfunction” until the state addresses the shortage of attorneys willing to represent suspects unable to afford an attorney.

“The lack of appointed counsel in this state is a constitutional crisis,” she wrote. “As a result, judges must make extremely difficult decisions every day, balancing the constitutional rights of the accused with the needs of the public.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit two years ago about the state system for providing lawyers to indigent clients, which historically relied on private lawyers remunerated by the state. A devastating one report for 2019 outlined significant flaws in Maine’s system, including lax oversight of billing practices by the private attorneys.

The state is trying to tackle the problems. These efforts include the creation of a formal system of public defenders with several taxpayer-funded offices throughout the state. But it will take time to clear the backlog that the ACLU of Maine describes as hundreds of defendants, some of whom have waited weeks or months for an attorney.

In the Auburn case, Hinkley was released from prison last year after serving 15 years of a 20-year sentence. He was still on probation and given the option of going back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence for the old crime, regardless of whether or not he was convicted of the charge of strangling another woman.

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The judge initially set bail at $25,000 and then reduced it to $5,000 and then to $1,500 with the stipulation that Hinkley would remain under house arrest and stay away from his victim. He was also prohibited from having a gun, McNeil said. His ex-girlfriend also had an active protection order from abuse.

The Maine State Trooper’s Association and the Maine Fraternal Order of Police were uncharitable about the judge’s decision, saying it showed “blatant disregard for the safety of a domestic violence victim and public safety.”

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This story has been corrected to show that the Lewiston mass shooting killed 18 people, not 13.

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