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

Officials say Maine’s shortage of public defenders allowed a man with a violent criminal history to be released on bail days before he went to his former girlfriend’s home where a man was killed, two houses burned to the ground and a standoff with police ensued
Auburn firefighters hose down the remains of home in Auburn, Maine, early Saturday, June 15, 2024. Police have canceled a shelter-in-place order in the city after reporting that an armed person was in an area where a series of explosions and a house fire erupted early Saturday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

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Auburn firefighters hose down the remains of home in Auburn, Maine, early Saturday, June 15, 2024. Police have canceled a shelter-in-place order in the city after reporting that an armed person was in an area where a series of explosions and a house fire erupted early Saturday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine's shortage of public defenders allowed a man with a violent criminal history to be released on bail three days before he went to his former girlfriend's Auburn home, where another man was killed before an hourslong standoff with police in which shots were exchanged, two houses burned to the ground and the assailant was eventually killed by tactical team.

Leein Hinkley, 43, posted bail June 12 after a judge cited delays in finding a court-appointed attorney for removing a probation hold on Hinkley 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 needs to fix the lawyer issue but public safety should not be compromised,” District Attorney Neil McLean Jr. said Monday. He described Hinkley as “an extremely dangerous human being.”

Hinkley had served a 15-year sentence for repeatedly stabbing his domestic partner and a bystander who intervened. He was back in custody for choking his current girlfriend when he went before a judge on May 24, McLean said. District Judge Sarah Churchill set $25,000 bail, then removed a probation hold and lowered the bail amount after Hinkley had spent 2 1/2 weeks in jail without a lawyer.

A Maine State Police tactical team fatally shot 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 anguish to a region that was traumatized by the killings of 18 people at two locations in neighboring Lewiston last fall.

On Monday, the court 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 court system will continue to “malfunction” until the state addresses the shortage of lawyers who are willing to represent defendants who are unable to pay for an attorney.

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

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued two years ago over the state's system for providing lawyers for indigent clients that historically relied on private attorneys who were reimbursed by the state. A scathing report in 2019 outlined significant shortcomings in Maine's system, including lax oversight of the billing practices by the private attorneys.

The state is trying to address the problems. Those efforts include creation of a formal public defender system with several taxpayer-funded offices across the state. But it will take time to address 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 faced the possibility of going back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence for the old crime, regardless of whether he was convicted of the charges of choking another woman.

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

The Maine State Trooper’s Association and Maine Fraternal Order of Police didn't take a charitable view of the judge's decision, saying she showed “blatant disregard for the safety of a victim of domestic violence and public safety.”

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

Auburn firefighters hose down the remains of home in Auburn, Maine, early Saturday, June 15, 2024. Police have canceled a shelter-in-place order in the city after reporting that an armed person was in an area where a series of explosions and a house fire erupted early Saturday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

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FILE - A man photographs a make-shift memorial at the base of the Lewiston sign at Veteran's Memorial Park, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. A lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserves says a reservist who would go on to commit the deadliest mass shooting in Maine history had a low threat profile when he left a psychiatric hospital prior to the killings. Lt. Col. Ryan Vazquez testified Monday, June 17, 2024 in front of a state commission investigating the Lewiston shootings to answer questions about what Army officials knew about shooter Robert Card prior to the Oct. 25 shootings. (AP Photo/Matt York, file)

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