Sep. 14-The state's top court has overturned a Limington man's murder conviction because the police conducted an illegal search on his property.
A jury found Bruce Akers, now 63, guilty in January 2020 of murdering his neighbor nearly four years prior. Akers was sentenced to 38 years in prison for that crime, but he filed an appeal, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments this year.
It is the second time in 17 years that the state's highest court has vacated a murder conviction.
Family members called police in June 2016 to report Douglas Flint missing from his home. Officers with the York County Sheriff's Office entered Akers' abutting property three separate times that day in hopes of talking with him about his neighbor. They did not find him until their last visit after midnight, when they lifted a window cover to shine a light inside a camper.
The officers saw Akers in a sleeping bag on the floor and directed him to come outside. During their conversation, Akers told them Flint was no longer alive and made other statements that police used against him. Investigators used that evidence to get a search warrant for the property. They eventually found Flint's body under a pile of deer hides and debris. He was 55.
Before his trial, Akers filed a motion to suppress his statements to the officers that night. He argued the search was illegal, so the jury should not be allowed to hear that evidence. York County Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas denied that motion. He wrote that the searches were reasonable because the officers were looking for a missing person.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court said that motion should have been granted. The opinion vacates the conviction and sends the case back to Superior Court, possibly for a new trial.
"To be sure, the societal and judicial costs of suppression are significant here," the unanimous opinion says. "If the officers' conduct in conducting nonconsensual investigatory searches of Akers's curtilage and camper without probable cause after midnight and insisting on Akers coming out of his residence to be interviewed was not flagrant, it was undoubtedly purposeful and it cannot be excused, and the deterrence benefits outweigh the costs of suppression."
It was not immediately clear how the decision would impact the prosecution of the case.
A spokesman said the Maine Attorney General's Office is still reviewing the opinion, and Akers will be held without bail unless the court directs otherwise. Attorney Rory McNamara, who represented Akers on appeal, did not respond Tuesday to an email or a voicemail.
The Supreme Judicial Court found the officers conducted an unreasonable and warrantless search, and the state did not prove that the statements Akers made "were not a product of coercive police conduct."
The order highlighted the fact that the officers arrived in the middle of the night, used a footpath instead of the driveway and did not immediately knock on the camper door. They called out to Akers, not Flint. They heard a thud from inside the camper, but they did not see an altercation or describe the noise as a cry for help.
"Furthermore, the sergeant's line of questioning - 'We got some business to take care of, right?'; 'You know why we're over here, right?'; 'We gotta find him'; 'Where is he?'; 'Is he alive?' - was pointed from the very outset," the order says. "The sergeant was not inquiring if Akers had seen the missing person or knew where he was. Rather, his questions were predicated from the beginning upon the assumption that Akers knew where the victim was located."
Attorneys Valerie Adams and Kristine Hanly represented Akers for the motion to suppress and the subsequent trial. Adams on Tuesday called the opinion "a serious blow to the prosecution."
"If this evidence had not come in at trial, I think that the trial would have resulted in a very different outcome," she said.
Adams said the attorneys felt the searches would clearly have been illegal if Akers lived in a house instead of a camper.
"We always felt that the law should not discriminate between a house and a trailer," she said. "We felt that it was obviously illegal what happened to him in his home."
York County Sheriff Bill King said Tuesday afternoon that he hadn't seen the ruling and didn't have any comment.
After the arrest, a judge found Akers incompetent to stand trial and ordered him to receive treatment at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. The judge later found he had regained his competency, and while his state of mind was a central factor at the trial, it has not been raised in the appeal.
At the trial, the state accused Akers of killing Flint with a machete during a fight over allegations of stolen alcohol. The defense argued Akers was experiencing a major mental illness at the time. Akers did not testify at trial or make a statement at his sentencing hearing.
In 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated a murder conviction for Marcus Asante, a Massachusetts man who was accused in a drug-related killing in 2016. Asante said he shot Douglas Morin Jr. of Oakfield in self-defense. The court found that the judge erred in instructing the jurors on all of the elements of robbery, and that led to an error in the instruction on self-defense on the murder count. Jury selection for his retrial began Monday in Androscoggin County Superior Court.
The last time the court had overturned a homicide conviction was in 2004, when Brandon Thongsavanh got a new trial in the fatal stabbing of a Bates College student in Lewiston. The justices ruled that a reference to a profane T-shirt Thongsavanh was wearing on the night of the killing may have prejudiced the jury. He was convicted a second time and received the same sentence, 58 years in prison, for the death of Morgan McDuffee, the captain of the school's lacrosse team.