Lack of public defenders in Maine allowed release of man responsible for heated standoff

By DAVID SHARP – Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A shortage of public defenders in Maine allowed a man with a violent criminal past to be released on bail for three days before going to his ex-girlfriend's Auburn home, where he killed another man before an hours-long standoff with police in which gunfire was exchanged, two homes burned to the ground and the attacker was eventually killed by a SWAT team.

Leein Hinkley, 43, was released on bail June 12 after a judge cited delays in finding a public defender as a reason to revoke Hinkley's probation and reduced his bail to $1,500. Hinkley's release angered law enforcement and the district attorney, who said public safety must be more important than delays in finding legal counsel for a man with a history of violent crimes.

“We recognize that the state must resolve the attorney issue, but public safety must not be compromised in the process,” District Attorney Neil McLean Jr. said Monday. He described Hinkley as “an extremely dangerous individual.”

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Hinkley had been serving a 15-year sentence for repeatedly stabbing his partner and a bystander who intervened. When he was arraigned on May 24, he was back in custody for choking his current girlfriend, McLean said. District Judge Sarah Churchill set bail at $25,000, then revoked a suspended sentence and reduced bail after Hinkley spent 2 1/2 weeks in jail without a lawyer.

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

On Monday, the court took the unusual step of issuing a statement in defense of the judge following public criticism from the district attorney, the Maine Fraternal Order of Police and the Maine State Trooper's Association.

Chief Judge Valerie Stanfill said the state's court system will continue to “malfunction” until the state addresses the shortage of lawyers willing to represent defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

“The shortage of public defenders in this state is a constitutional crisis,” she wrote. “As a result, judges must make extraordinarily 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 suit two years ago against the state's system for providing lawyers to indigent clients, which in the past relied on private attorneys compensated by the state. A scathing 2019 report described significant deficiencies in Maine's system, including lax oversight of private attorneys' billing practices.

The state is trying to address the problems. That effort includes creating a formal public defender system with several taxpayer-funded offices across the state. But it will take time to clear the backlog, which the ACLU of Maine estimates at hundreds of defendants, some of whom have been waiting for a lawyer for weeks or months.

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 may have to go back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence for the old crime, regardless of whether he was convicted on the charge of choking another woman.

The judge initially set bail at $25,000, then reduced it to $5,000 and finally to $1,500, with the condition that Hinkley remain under house arrest and stay away from his victim. He is also prohibited from possessing a weapon, McNeil said. A restraining order has also been issued against his ex-girlfriend.

The Maine State Trooper's Association and the Maine Fraternal Order of Police were not particularly pleased with the judge's decision, saying the judge had shown “a blatant disregard for the safety of a victim of domestic violence and public safety.”

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

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