AUBURN — Gov. Janet Mills criticized Thursday the actions of a Lewiston judge who reduced the bail of a defendant who later attacked a woman and her boyfriend and set a fire that destroyed two homes.

Mills said she reviewed the facts of the case of Leein Amos Hinkley, 43, who had been awaiting a court-appointed attorney to represent him on domestic violence assault charges and a probation violation.

When, after several court appearances, there was no attorney available to take Hinkley’s case, Judge Sarah Churchill lowered his bail from $5,000 to $1,500 cash and ordered him on house arrest.

“Based on the facts of the case and my experience as a former defense attorney, district attorney, and attorney general, I strongly disagree with the Judge’s decision,” Mills said in a written statement released Thursday to the Sun Journal.

“I recognize and appreciate that judges make difficult decisions every day, balancing constitutional rights, including the right to counsel, with many other considerations — chief among them being the safety of the public.

“In my view, given the severity of the charges, the defendant’s criminal history and the serious danger he posed, these important, competing interests were not properly balanced in this case,” Mills wrote.


Mills nominated Churchill to serve as a judge on Maine District Court in 2021.

“My heart breaks for the victims of this heinous crime, including the woman, the family and friends of the individual whose body was recovered in the house, the neighbors who lost their home, and the community members who were scared for their safety and wellbeing,” Mills wrote.

The woman, who was Hinkley’s ex-girlfriend, had escaped to safety early Saturday morning after Hinkley had gone to her Russell Street home.

But, in the aftermath of the events of that morning, human remains were recovered in the rubble of her home.

Her boyfriend’s whereabouts had been unknown since he had apparently struggled that morning with Hinkley, who had encountered the woman’s boyfriend at her home.

Hinkley was later involved in a shootout with police, during which he either was fatally shot by Maine State Police tactical unit or took his own life, according to conflicting reports.


The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been working to identify the remains found at the home and determine a cause of death.

Mills wrote Thursday that she had also reviewed a case from last week in which Churchill had dismissed two domestic violence charges against a different defendant who had spent more than 100 days in jail without a court-appointed attorney.

Mills wrote that Churchill had concluded she lacked the authority to appoint an attorney for that defendant, “an assertion that I also disagree with.”

Mills wrote that although Maine law states the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services is responsible for providing lawyers for indigent defendants, “there is nothing to prohibit the (judge) from appointing counsel for defendants themselves when the commission appears unable to provide a lawyer. I strongly believe that the courts have the inherent right, and, in fact, the responsibility — backed by decades of precedent — to appoint counsel in such circumstances. I am interested in considering how we can make this right more well-understood, including potentially clarifying state law to make it more explicit.”

Hinkley had been represented during his several court appearances by temporary legal counsel.

Mills wrote that Churchill could have appointed one of those attorneys to represent Hinkley as his permanent lawyer for the case.


Mills also wrote that she understood “there are simply not enough rostered attorneys with the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services — a larger systemic issue that also contributed to this tragic situation.”

She wrote that she is planning, in the coming weeks, to speak with the chairman of that commission, in addition to other stakeholders, “to consider what more can be done to improve the delivery of legal services and to ensure that such a terrible and avoidable incident does not happen again.”

Mills wrote: “The right to counsel is one that I deeply value and have personally delivered, having represented indigent defendants hundreds of times during my own legal career. All of us — the Governor, the Legislature, the Judiciary, the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services, and — let us not forget — private law firms with attorneys who can take on public defense work — must work together to address this issue.”

Earlier this week, Maine’s judiciary defended Churchill’s decision to lower Hinkley’s bail, pointing blame at the commission, which is tasked with supplying indigent defendants with qualified attorneys.

The lack of attorneys available for appointment amounts to a constitutional crisis, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said this week.

“While prosecutors argue for defendants to continue to be incarcerated before trial and defense attorneys argue for charges to be dismissed, the burden falls on our dedicated judges to make the hard decisions in each case,” Stanfill said. “Our system of justice depends on all the parts of the system being adequately resourced so that the parts can work together toward a just end for everyone. If one or more of the parts is inadequately funded, or missing altogether, the system will break down,” she said.


Maine has been the only state in the country with no formal public defender office. Instead, the state has relied on private criminal defense lawyers who signed up with the courts to be appointed to represent indigent clients.

But, that’s changing.

First, Mills boosted hourly reimbursement rates twice, eventually more than doubling the initial rate.

In recent years, Mills has worked with the Legislature to create and fund Maine’s first public defender positions, which have expanded each year in northern Maine.

At the same time, she has beefed up funding for judicial positions, including trial judges and clerks, in an effort to address criminal case backlogs in the courts, according to Mills’ office.

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