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Commission probing Lewiston shootings seeks subpoena powers to help with uncooperative witnesses

Members of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department, seated at table at right, are questioned, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Augusta, Maine, during a hearing of the independent commission investigating the law enforcement response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Members of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department, seated at table at right, are questioned, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Augusta, Maine, during a hearing of the independent commission investigating the law enforcement response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.

The director of the state commission conducting the probe into the Lewiston mass shootings says the panel has been spurned by potential witnesses. The comments by Director Anne Jordan came during Monday's public hearing on a bill that would give the commission subpoena power.

Jordan didn't provide specifics about the witnesses who have refused to testify voluntarily, but she indicated that there have been some obstacles as the commission seeks information from the U.S. Army.

The gunman, Robert Card, was a reservist with the Army, which has come under scrutiny for how it handled warnings about his increased paranoia and threatening behavior in the months before his rampage claimed the lives of 18 people.

"We have been attempting to work and are in correspondence with the U.S. Army and others, but we have run into — I don't want to say permanent roadblocks — we have run into some issues," Jordan said.

Jordan told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that she hopes a bill granting the commission subpoena power will help facilitate cooperation from Army officials and other witnesses.

The Army is conducting its own review of its actions before the October shootings and the U.S. Army Inspector General is doing a separate investigation.

Nevertheless, Jordan says granting the commission subpoena power will help the panel obtain all the facts it can and might help compel witness testimony and the turning over of documents.

In written testimony supporting the bill, Jordan said several individuals have "either refused to appear or who have been directed not to voluntarily appear by their superiors." She said there's also been instances where people have refused to turn over records in their possession absent "a legally binding order."

The bill granting the commission subpoena power may resolve some of those obstacles, but it's unclear whether entities outside of state jurisdiction will comply.

Card was a member of a U.S. Army Reserve unit based out of Saco, where he has been described as a "firearms instructor." He spent two weeks at a psychiatric hospital in New York in July after leaders of his unit brought him to a military hospital because of his erratic and aggressive behavior. Neither the Army nor New York State Police, who were called to assist during the incident, have disclosed what information, if any, was transmitted back to Maine about Card.

Members of Card's family had also expressed concerns with police in Maine about his increasing paranoia and access to guns months before the Oct. 25 shooting. After a fellow reservist told unit leaders in September that he believed Card was "going to snap and do a mass shooting," a Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office deputy tried unsuccessfully twice to speak with Card at his Bowdoin home.

Maine has a "yellow flag" law that allows police to seek to force someone to temporarily relinquish their guns if a medical professional and a judge agree that they pose a threat to themselves or others. The Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office never attempted to use the law, however, and instead received assurances from Card's family and Army Reserve leaders that they would try to remove his guns and get him into treatment. Six weeks later, Card used a high-powered assault-style rifle to kill 18 and wound 13 others at two Lewiston businesses.

Use of Maine's "yellow flag" law has surged since the Lewiston shooting. But critics contend that Maine's law is weaker than the "red flag" laws used in more than 20 other states because it only allows police to begin the process and requires a medical examination.

The commission last week heard testimony from officers with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office defending their response to warnings about the gunman. They said that while information about Card's deteriorating mental health was alarming, they said Army officials downplayed his conduct and threats.

The commission will meet again Thursday and is expected to hear from family members of shooting victims.

Jordan told the Judiciary Committee that the commission will not use subpoenas to compel testimony from victims or family members.

The proposal is backed by Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and is expected to move quickly through the Legislature.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.