Sixth Amendment

Judge who cut bail for man linked to later fatal arson had cited his right to counsel

A judge in Maine is being blamed for reducing bail for a man who was later shot and killed in a standoff with police on Saturday after he allegedly set a fire that killed a person. (Image from Shutterstock)

Updated: A judge in Maine is being blamed for reducing bail for a man who was later shot and killed in a standoff with police on Saturday after he allegedly set a fire that killed a person.

Judge Sarah Churchill had cited Leein Amos Hinkley’s Sixth Amendment rights June 12 when she removed a probation hold for 2011 crimes and cut Hinkley’s bail from $5,000 to $1,500, according to the Maine Fraternal Order of Police and the Maine State Troopers Association.

Churchill, a judge in Androscoggin County, Maine, cited Hinkley’s inability to obtain legal counsel.

The Lewiston Sun Journal and WGME have coverage.

Hinkley, a 43-year-old man from Lewiston, Maine, was on probation following a prison sentence for domestic violence crimes when he allegedly attacked a woman May 24. He was accused of violating probation and charged with domestic violence aggravated assault in the new crime.

“After two weeks of incarceration on new criminal charges and violating his probation, Judge Churchill cited Hinkley’s Sixth Amendment right based on a failure to obtain legal counsel as the reason for his release,” according to a press release.

Hinkley allegedly attacked a woman and her friend in a home in Auburn, Maine, on Saturday and then set fire to the home and the residence next door. The woman called police and escaped through a window, according to a report by WBUR.

Police saw Hinkley on a rooftop with a gun and fatally shot him, WBUR had reported.

In a statement Monday cited by Newsday, District Attorney Neil McLean Jr. said he recognized that the state “needs to fix the lawyer issue. But public safety should not be compromised.”

The Maine Judicial Branch issued a statement Monday in response to the criticism.

“It is dangerous and short-sighted to blame the court for the horrific acts because it obscures the real nature of the problem: an insufficient number of attorneys willing to represent the rights of the accused,” the statement said. “The crisis of lack of counsel has been developing for years; it will not disappear overnight. … In Maine, indigent legal defense services are delivered by the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services (MCPDS) and not by the court. MCPDS is charged by statute with maintaining a sufficient number of attorneys on their rosters, so that the court may make initial assignments of attorneys. MCPDS has had difficulty recruiting attorneys in recent years despite a substantial increase in hourly rates. Because there are too few lawyers on the rosters, the trial court is frequently unable to assign constitutionally required counsel for defendants who have been charged with crimes.”

The criticism follows a June 14 report from the Portland Press Herald about Churchill’s June 13 decision to toss two charges of misdemeanor domestic violence against a man who had not been appointed counsel for 105 days. The article did not identify that defendant, but the details do not match Hinkley’s case.

“The right to counsel is not trivial and a serious remedy is necessary, so the Sixth Amendment does not become a platitude to be theoretically applied in the halls of academia but never to darken the doorstep of a courtroom,” Churchill wrote.

The article says Churchill is likely the first judge in Maine to dismiss charges amid an increase in the number of unrepresented defendants.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued the state in 2022 for an alleged Sixth Amendment failure to provide effective assistance of counsel. The group released a report in May finding that 633 people have been denied their right to an attorney, up from 106 six months before. Among them, 144 were being detained without legal representation.

The ABA Journal called Churchill for comment at her court Monday, but no one answered.

See also:

‘Desperate for lawyers,’ Maine considers alternative path to law license

Updated June 18 at 8:40 a.m. to include coverage by Newsday and the judicial branch statement.

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