Court Coverage: Out of Order
by Al Diamon
In need of cross examination: On May 7, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision that was newsworthy for two important reasons. It set the stage for a dangerous criminal to receive a shorter prison sentence, and it involved the justices in matters with which they had never before meddled.
Even so, the Associated Press dealt with the matter in a brief piece that was both incomplete and misleading. The Bangor Daily News did a better job, but still underplayed the implications of this divided decision.
The high court was dealing with the case of Theodore S. Stanislaw, a convicted sex offender from Blue Hill. Stanislaw had pleaded guilty in 2010 to various charges concerning molesting young girls. He was originally sentenced by Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy to serve 28 years in prison. Stanislaw appealed that long term as excessive, and the state supreme court agreed, sending the case back for a fresh assessment. Cuddy reconsidered, but still set time behind bars at 27 years. Stanislaw again appealed, and this time, a slim majority of the justices decided to venture into new territory.
Contrary to the AP story, the court was unanimous in overturning the second sentence as too long. Where the split occurred was in the decision of four justices to recommend to Cuddy specific guidelines for a new term of imprisonment.
“Because this is an unusual case in that we have now twice vacated the sentences imposed,” the court majority wrote, “and the need for finality is particularly acute because the case involves young victims, we provide additional guidance for the sentencing on remand, cautioning that it is based on the existing sentencing record and not on the record that may be developed following our remand. The data presently available to us suggests that an unsuspended sentence of one-third to one-half of the current unsuspended sentence would comply with our constitutional and statutory proportionality requirements.”
The other three justices dissented only with regard to that recommendation, noting that the high court has no sentencing authority and lacks much of the information necessary to determine an appropriate term of incarceration.
Reporter Bill Trotter of the Bangor newspaper explained this in his May 8 article, but failed to deal with the implications, which several lawyers I corresponded with said will likely be considerable. There are undoubtedly some good follow-up pieces that could be produced on what sentences fit what crimes, the unforeseen consequences of this decision and the high court’s lurch into judicial activism.
I won’t be expecting any of them from the AP.
Coastal paper goes under: The Island Times, a monthly paper covering the Casco Bay islands, has ceased publication, according to a notice in its last issue (it’s not online, because the website hasn’t been updated for months). The Times has been around for a decade, run mostly by a volunteer staff. Publisher Kevin Attra told the Forecaster that ad revenue had begun to dry up in past year, and circulation was declining, from a summertime high of 5,000 to just 2,000 in recent months. He said it’s possible the publication could return as a nonprofit enterprise, but so far, he hasn’t been able to line up any funding.
Coverage deficit: Portland Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis takes the Maine media to task in his May 3 “Press Releases” column for failing to cover Gov. Paul LePage’s April 16 speech to businesspeople in Skowhegan. At that event, LePage made numerous newsworthy remarks, at least one of which was patently false.
The only way we know that is because someone secretly recorded his talk (the organizers tried to ban such efforts, but in this day, that’s like trying to ban sex) and leaked the results to blogger Mike Tipping, who rolled the best stuff out in a series of postings.
Inglis concluded from the failure of mainstream news organization to show up for the event that “our traditional press corps has a dangerously distant relationship with covering our elected officials.”
Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.