South Portland High School is seen in October. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It’s been more than a year since a 16-year-old allegedly tried to recruit someone to kill people at South Portland High School.

It’s been nine months since police said they stopped a violent attack on the community by arresting him at his home and seizing several high-powered rifles.

It’s been five months since the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office charged the teen with criminal solicitation, arson and terrorizing – charges so serious that his identity was unsealed in court records despite his young age.

But because so much information about the allegations against Tristan Hamilton remains under seal, it’s impossible to assess whether the courts should release more details in the interest of public safety or if – in a system that normally prioritizes protecting juveniles – it has already said too much. 

The paucity of information about Hamilton’s case has frustrated members of the South Portland High School community who want to know whom he threatened and how credible those threats were.

Hamilton’s family and attorneys have argued the publicity surrounding the teen is damaging him.


Privacy is the default in Maine’s juvenile justice system, which aims to shield, rehabilitate and support young offenders so that mistakes they make as minors don’t ruin their adult lives.

But things get more complicated when teenagers face charges that are serious but fall short of murder. Each state handles this gray area differently.

In the spring of 2022, a 16-year-old student at Berkeley High School in California was charged with crimes including criminal solicitation of murder after police raided his home and found parts to make weapons and explosives, according to local news reports. He pleaded guilty to a felony and was placed in juvenile detention a month later. His name has never been published. 

In Florida, three boys between the ages of 14 and 15 were arrested in October for allegedly making a “hit list” of Creekside High School classmates they wanted to hurt or kill. The St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office immediately released their names and mug shots.

In the South Portland case, Judge Peter Darvin’s strict gag order has limited courtroom discussion of Hamilton’s supposed plot to vague statements. But in several hearings, prosecutors have argued that the public safety concerns at the heart of the case are serious enough to trump concerns for the teenager’s privacy.

“It’s all about rehabilitation until it bumps up against public safety concerns,” Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Michelle McCulloch said last month in a wide-ranging interview about the juvenile justice system.


During a two-day hearing expected to begin on March 1, prosecutors will argue that Hamilton, who was 15 or 16 at the time he allegedly planned the attack, should be tried as an adult. How Darvin rules on that motion will dramatically affect how the rest of teenager’s case plays out and what types of punishment he could face.

But whatever the ultimate outcome of prosecutors’ effort to “bind over” Hamilton’s case from juvenile to adult court, the hearing will shed light finally on a case that today remains shrouded in mystery.

Officials prepare to reopen the Cumberland County Courthouse on Jan. 4 after it was evacuated briefly after an emailed bomb threat. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald


In Maine juvenile court, there are no guilty or not guilty pleas – just admissions and denials. Adjudications take the place of convictions. Dispositions replace sentences.

According to McCulloch, the unique vocabulary of juvenile court is one of many ways the system is set up to protect and rehabilitate minors. When asked later in life by a potential employer whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, many juvenile offenders can honestly answer, “No.”

McCulloch, one of the prosecutors assigned to the Hamilton case, agreed to discuss the juvenile justice system broadly but said she could not comment on Hamilton specifically. She said it’s obvious why teenagers with brains that are still developing should be treated differently than adults.


“We recognize lack of maturity,” she said. “We recognize that young people are likely to make bad decisions that might then have an impact on their entire lives.”

As a whole, Maine’s juvenile system has spent years moving slowly toward programs that emphasize rehabilitation. The state’s only juvenile detention facility, Long Creek Youth Development Center, now houses fewer than 40 teens. Lawmakers and activists have been attempting to close the facility and move to a system of smaller, secure transitional-housing options.

While adult court sentences typically involve fines and jail time, juvenile courts have the leeway to get much more creative, McCulloch said. Minors can be ordered to attend school or counseling, be subjected to close monitoring by juvenile corrections officers or be taken out of their homes and put into state custody. The goal is to put them on a better track moving forward.

Protecting minors’ privacy is a key part of that goal, said defense attorney Walt McKee, who works on both adult and juvenile criminal cases.

Minors’ names are typically confidential in Maine juvenile courts unless they are charged with a Class A offense or prosecutors petition to unseal their names – and even then, most court documents remain sealed. Adjudication orders are often public, but young offenders can request they be sealed after three years if they don’t reoffend.

Hamilton’s name first appeared on public court documents after he was charged with Class A arson last April. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram chose not to identify him at the time because the charges appeared to be unrelated to the alleged threats against South Portland High School.


He was later charged with solicitation of murder, another Class A crime, which can carry a sentence of up to 30 years in prison in adult court.

McKee said publicizing juvenile crimes can discourage young offenders from making positive changes.

“The juvenile takes the perspective of, ‘Well, I’ve been written about all over the paper. I’m screwed,’ ” he said. “And to a certain degree, they’re not wrong.”

But prosecutors also have a duty to victims and to the community, McCulloch said.

When teenagers repeatedly break the law or when they commit such serious violations, prosecutors may seek to bump them up to adult court. Juvenile adjudications cannot include detention past the teen’s 21st birthday – no matter the seriousness of the charge.



Maine prosecutors rarely attempt to move teenagers to the adult system. Murder charges are usually the sole exception. McCulloch said she can count on one hand the number of times her office has sought to transfer a case in recent years.

The process has two parts. Prosecutors must first show the judge that there is probable cause that the minor committed the serious offense. Lawyers on both sides can submit evidence and call police officers, correctional staff and other witnesses to make their case, McCulloch said.

Darvin, who so far has generally favored Hamilton’s right to privacy over the public’s right to know, has said that this is when the public will finally get to learn about the state’s evidence against the teen.

At several hearings this fall, Darvin barred the defense and prosecution from speaking openly about the specifics of the case. Over continued objections from prosecutors, the judge limited discussion of those facts to written motions, which are sealed.

If the judge agrees there is probable cause – a far lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt – the second phase of the proceeding begins. Lawyers will then argue whether transferring the case to adult court is appropriate based on four criteria: the seriousness of the crime, characteristics of the minor, public safety concerns and whether punishments available through the juvenile system would be adequate.

If the judge agrees to move the case (and the defense fails to successfully appeal the decision), it essentially starts over in a new venue, beginning with a grand jury seeking an indictment. The case could progress to a jury trial. If there was a conviction, a prison term would be served in an adult facility.


In a juvenile trial, the judge, not a jury, determines the minor’s guilt and imposes the sentence.


Hamilton has maintained his innocence throughout the case. His attorneys, who declined to discuss the case with the Press Herald for this story, have said the teen has suffered since the raid last April and especially since the Press Herald first published his name in September.

He is being held under house arrest, does school work remotely and has limited access to the internet. His parents and lawyers have told Darvin that he has lost several jobs and most of his friends.

“A lot of this can’t be undone,” his defense attorney Mark Peltier said at a hearing in September. “No matter what happens in this case, I think there’s going to be harm.”

In December, after the teenager was detained for violating his release conditions by participating in hateful group chats online, Peltier said Hamilton didn’t “believe this stuff” and visited dark corners of the internet only because he couldn’t find acceptance anywhere else – an argument that Darvin dismissed.


Prosecutors have remained adamant that the South Portland community deserves to know more about how it was threatened. At each of several hearings last fall, Assistant District Attorney Abigail Couture has objected to Darvin’s gag order and other rulings — including the decision not to allow her to read aloud several letters from students, parents and teachers who expressed fear and frustration about the mystery surrounding the case.

During her 2022 campaign, Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris called for juvenile justice reform, including the closure of Long Creek. On her website, she said juvenile case policies should be “modernized and emphasize alternatives to avoid system induced trauma.”

But her campaign platform also called for more transparency and public accountability. 

“Obviously when you have no information, it’s not a great situation,” she said after her office filed the charges that brought Hamilton’s name to light in September. “I think it stimulates fear.”

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