Maine lawmakers seek funding for unit dedicated to investigating unsolved homicides

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill last spring creating a new unit in the attorney general's office that would focus solely on investigating Maine's more than 100 unsolved homicides. There was only one problem: the Legislature never funded it.

"That's like a slap in the face, to pass it and not try to find funding," said Pam McLain, whose daughter, Joyce, was found dead at the age of 16 after she went for a jog in East Millinocket 35 years ago. Joyce's killer has never been found.

Now, lawmakers from both parties are pushing to find the money to start a cold case squad, which they say will put more resources into helping provide justice for families that never received the closure that they deserve.

The proposed cold case unit would include least one assistant attorney general, two detectives and one person from the state police's crime laboratory. Lawmakers predicted last year that it would cost more than $500,000 in the first fiscal year and roughly $400,000 a year after that.

The Legislature's budget-writing committee directed the state to pursue federal funding for the effort, but Maine didn't win the grant.

Rep. Stephen Stanley, a Democrat from Medway who sponsored the bill last year and has put in a new proposal, said he had hoped that LePage would set aside the money in the $6.3 billion budget plan he introduced this month.

But LePage's administration says that while he supports the idea, he believes that are other priorities that need to be funded first: like several new drug enforcement agent positions and prosecutors in the attorney general's office focused on drug crimes.

"He can't support another directive if we don't have enough ... law enforcement right now to do the job that needs to be done," said the Republican governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett. "When there's only so much money to go around, you have to prioritize," she said.

There's currently one assistant attorney general who's focused solely on investigating these roughly 120 unsolved homicide cases in the state, said Lisa Marchese, chief of the criminal division in the attorney general's office, which supports the special unit. That attorney works closely with detectives from the state police and the cities of Portland Bangor, but everyone is understaffed, she said.

Rep. Karl Ward, who has also introduced a proposal this session, said he understands that money is tight but believes there's a way to find money for the unit while also funding the governor's priorities.

"I'm going to do the best that I know how to do ... to make sure that the voices that believe that this should happen are heard and make sure that the governor has very thoroughly thought this through," the Dedham Republican said. "I am not convinced that this is an either/or proposition."

Public hearings on the proposals haven't yet been scheduled, but several groups that have been advocating for the cold case unit are already planning a "Rally for Justice" in the Hall of Flags at the Statehouse to draw attention to the issue. Advocates including families of cold-case victims have also stated a petition asking lawmakers to fund the squad.

Marchese said that the momentum for the proposal appears to be growing.

"It seems to be a priority issue not only for the attorney general, but many others," she said. "I'm very hopeful that it will get funded."


Online:

Cold Case Squad funding petition: https://www.change.org/p/permanently-fund-a-cold-case-squad-in-maine


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