August 10—Prosecutors will not be allowed to use any evidence obtained through an unconstitutional search warrant in the second murder trial of a Limington man whose conviction was overturned in September.
The question of what evidence a jury will hear in the trial of Bruce Akers has dominated hearings and filings since the Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated Akers’ conviction last fall, sending his case back to York County Superior Court for a retrial.
The high court had found that a search warrant used to find the body of Akers’ neighbor, Douglas Flint, was obtained following an illegal search of Akers’ property by the York County Sheriff’s Office.
On Monday, Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas ruled all evidence obtained after the search warrant was obtained is illegal — including a K-9 search that led officers to Flint’s body, and statements Akers made to police after the illegal search of his property, but before the search warrant was issued.
Now it is unclear what, if any, evidence remains for trial. Spokesperson Danna Hayes, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, did not respond to questions regarding the state’s next steps following Douglas’ ruling.
If the state does not have enough evidence to proceed, prosecutors could file a motion to dismiss the case. They also have 21 days to appeal Douglas’ decision and have the Maine Supreme Judicial Court weigh in, but they would be appealing to the same court that determined their evidence was unconstitutionally obtained in the first place.
Akers was charged with killing Flint, 55, with a machete during an argument over stolen alcohol in June 2016. Akers was convicted on the murder charge in January 2020 and sentenced to 38 years in prison that November.
Flint’s family had called the police in June 2016 to report him missing. After visiting both Flint’s property and then Akers’ next door several times in hopes of talking with Akers about his neighbor, officers found Akers after midnight in a sleeping bag on the floor of his camper. Officers had lifted a window cover on the camper to shine a light inside.
During their conversation, Akers told them Flint was no longer alive and made other statements that investigators used to get a search warrant for the property. They eventually found Flint’s body under a pile of deer hides and debris the next day.
Before his first trial, Akers filed a motion to suppress statements he made to officers the night before they secured the search warrant and conducted their official search of his property. Akers argued in his motion that the search was illegal, so the jury should not be allowed to hear that evidence. Douglas, the superior court justice, denied that motion in May 2019, writing that the searches were reasonable because the officers were looking for a missing person.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled last September that the motion should actually have been granted, and Akers’ conviction was vacated.
While the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled that the illegal search was “undoubtedly purposeful” and could not be excused, Douglas was left to decide this year whether the state’s unconstitutionally obtained evidence could still be used at trial because it would’ve been discovered anyway.
Officers who testified during a hearing in early June described their policies for locating a missing person, saying they likely would have initiated a K-9 search anyway without knowing Flint was dead.
Douglas said in his ruling that the officers were only speculating about what they would have done, and based on their actions there’s no firm argument that they would have inevitably found Flint’s body.
“Although his speculation was credible,” Douglas wrote, referring to testimony from Sgt. Steven Thistlewood who was working for the sheriff’s office at the time, “it was also unspecific as to timing and details — and leaves much to speculation.”
This is the second time in 20 years that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has decided to vacate a murder conviction. But courts throughout the state consider every day whether to include or toss evidence against defendants, depending on constitutionality.
“When these orders come out, a lot of people view it as a technicality, or a loophole, but it’s the Constitution,” Kristine Hanly, Akers’ attorney, said Tuesday. “The officers were found to have violated the Constitution, and that’s why we’re where we are.”
Akers has been incarcerated for more than six years. Hanley said Tuesday she has already filed a motion for Douglas to consider releasing Akers on personal recognizance while he awaits new developments in his case. His bail is set at $200,000.