Aug. 29—The state has dropped a murder charge against a Limington man whose conviction was vacated and sent back for a new trial last fall by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Bruce Akers, 64, was charged in June 2016 with killing a neighbor, Douglas Flint. A jury found Akers guilty in January 2020 and he was sentenced to 38 years in state prison.
But last September, the state's highest court ruled that the judge overseeing Akers' trial erred in allowing jurors to hear statements Akers made to police before he was read his Miranda rights. Then earlier this month, while preparing for Akers' second trial, Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas further ruled that those statements had tainted other crucial evidence found through a search warrant for Akers' property the next day, which York County Sheriff's officers secured using the unconstitutionally obtained statements.
"Due to suppression of evidence rulings, the state lacks sufficient evidence to proceed to trial," the state's motion says.
Douglas already agreed this month to let Akers wait for trial from home after six years in York County Jail and state prison. Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis did not object to the motion and Akers was released on personal recognizance.
The York County Sheriff's Office investigated the case after Flint's family members reported him missing in June 2016. Officers have testified that they originally believed Flint, 55, was suicidal and was at risk of harming himself.
Officers visited Flint's property, and then Akers' house next door several times in hopes of talking with Akers. They eventually found him after midnight in a sleeping bag on the floor of his camper, which they were looking into after lifting a window cover and shining a light inside. It was at this time that Akers told officers — before they read him his Miranda rights — that Flint was no longer alive and made other statements that investigators used to get a search warrant for the property the next day.
Through that search warrant, investigators 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. Douglas, the superior court justice, denied that motion in May 2019, writing that the illegal searches were reasonable because the officers were looking for a missing person.
The state supreme court disagreed. After justices unanimously ruled that the illegal search was "undoubtedly purposeful" and could not be excused, Douglas was left to decide whether evidence the state obtained after getting the search warrant — including the location of Flint's body and the alleged murder weapon, a machete — could still be considered in a new trial.
The Maine Attorney General's Office called on officers during a hearing in early June, trying to prove that police would've inevitably found Flint's body even without the search warrant. Sgt. Steven Thistlewood, one of the officers who was working for the sheriff's office in 2016, testified that the office's policies for locating a missing person could have initiated a K-9 search that would have led investigators to Flint's body.
Douglas said in his ruling that the K-9 search was too hypothetical, and based on the officers' actions from 2016, there was no firm argument that they would have inevitably found Flint's body.
"Although his speculation was credible," Douglas wrote, referring to Thistlewood's testimony, "it was also unspecific as to timing and details — and leaves much to speculation."
Kristine Hanly, Akers' defense attorney, said Monday that she hopes the state's dismissal discourages future constitutional violations by law enforcement agencies.
She said suppression hearings — where attorneys ask that certain evidence be excluded from trial — are a way to hold police accountable for violating the rights of the public and can deter them from taking actions that might sully the state's ability to prosecute a case.
"People are commenting that this hasn't happened before, or that it very rarely happens in a homicide case," Hanly said of Monday's dismissal. Hanly said violations of constitutional rights can happen any time, adding that citizens interact with law enforcement on a daily basis.
"Every interaction has that potential," she said.
In a telephone interview Monday night, Hanly said Akers is not ready yet to be interviewed about what his future holds. For the time being, Akers is living with family members — she would not say where — and is in the process of getting his life back together.
He is exploring work options, and just bought a new cellphone after spending the past six years in a jail cell, Hanly said.
"He is still processing the state's decision and what that means to him moving forward," she said. "He is not prepared to make a statement, at least not yet."
Attempts to reach Flint's family members Monday evening were not successful.
Danna Hayes, spokesperson for the Office of the Maine Attorney General, said in a statement Monday that prosecutors "remain confident in the evidence that resulted in a guilty verdict." Hayes declined to address the role of law enforcement in Akers' case and the impact their illegal search of Akers' property had on the state's inability to have a trial.
York County Sheriff William King Jr. declined to answer questions Monday regarding the mishandling of the investigation into Flint's killing.
"I think your inquiry is best directed to the court," King replied in a text message.
Aside from Akers, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has only vacated and sent two other murder cases back for trial in the last 20 years. In both cases, the defendant was convicted at the second trial.
In 2020, the court vacated a murder conviction for Marcus Asante, a Massachusetts man who was accused of 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.
Asante was found guilty a second time and resentenced to 35 years in state prison in December.
The last time the court 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.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.