Defense attorney Amy Fairfield (left) reviews a document with a witness during a trial on Oct. 11, 2017 at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland. Fairfield has alleged "systemic failures" at the Maine State Police's forensic lab in a lawsuit against the state. Credit: Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA, Maine — A criminal defense lawyer suing Maine for information on how the state police crime lab operates claims public officials are withholding documents that would illuminate “systemic failures” at the forensic lab.

The explosive claims are at the heart of a Maine Freedom of Access Act request made last year by the office of Lyman-based lawyer Amy Fairfield. It hinges on the resignation of a crime lab employee in 2012 after he allegedly lied to his superiors, causing the state to alert courts that evidence provided by the worker could require examinations of his credibility.

The state provided thousands of pages in response to Fairfield’s request by February, but withheld records it said contained confidential personnel information and could violate privacy. Fairfield appealed to York County Superior Court, saying documents provided show instances in which the lab failed to produce credible evidence and mischaracterized problems.

In a Tuesday filing, Fairfield said it is often difficult for the public to imagine “what parts of the criminal justice system are done in a vacuum” without anyone checking on work performance and how public officials follow law and policy.

“The Maine State Police Crime Lab is an exemplar of this exact phenomena, and the public interest in disclosure of the records sought in this matter could not be more important,” she wrote.

The allegations come as Maine’s criminal justice system is under scrutiny after a year of political turmoil surrounding national policing and local calls for reform while lawmakers work on the state’s two-year budget. A state trooper also sued his own agency in May alleging the Maine Information and Analysis Center unlawfully collected data and spied on certain people.

Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office is arguing against Fairfield’s appeal, saying in a January filing that his office is still responding to her request. A Frey spokesperson declined to comment on the filings. A Maine State Police spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

Her latest filing came after she ramped up her case in late February by subpoenaing Lt. Col. Bill Harwood, who ran the crime lab before becoming the deputy chief of the Maine State Police in 2018. She alleges that Harwood has mischaracterized the circumstances that led to the departure of the employee, Todd Settlemire.

The state is resisting the Harwood subpoena, claiming his virtual appearance at a Zoom hearing in the case on Thursday would be an “undue burden” and that the hearing will not focus on testimony. Fairfield argues his testimony and knowledge of the lab is crucial to her case.

Settlemire resigned in 2012 during an internal investigation after his genetic material was found on evidence in a DNA processing room he was forbidden to enter, according to a filing from Harwood related to a sex-crime case that year. He initially said he did not go past the doorway, but Harwood disclosed that Settlemire went further into the room.

That incident caused the state to alert courts in at least three criminal cases that evidence provided by Settlemire may have to be disclosed to defense attorneys, according to court documents. These types of disclosures are commonplace in law enforcement under two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. United States — that require prosecutors to disclose evidence that could exonerate defendants or impeach the credibility of others involved in the case when such information is material.

But Fairfield said Maine courts ordered documents related to the Settlemire issue sealed and barred lawyers from discussing them with others outside their offices, meaning “the information about untoward activity in the Crime Lab did not spread” throughout the legal community.

One of these cases was the 2012 conviction of Jay Mercier for the cold-case murder of a young Anson woman in 1980. An outside expert commissioned last year by Fairfield, who has represented Mercier in a post-conviction review, indicated concerns in how DNA evidence was presented to the jury and said Mercier “was done a great injustice by the trial he received.”

In the Mercier case, Fairfield’s filing says the defense was allowed to see Settlemire’s personnel file. While she is largely barred from discussing it, the file “flipped the … case against Mercier on its head” and “presents grave concerns about systemic failures at the lab,” she said.

Widespread issues at the lab could have major implications for Maine’s criminal justice system. The lab handles DNA testing and screens for fluids left at crime scenes, plus firearms examinations and gunshot residue determinations.

Fairfield, who is leading the lawsuit on behalf of her son, Keegan Fairfield, the paralegal at her firm who filed the request, often defends indigent clients. She represented Anthony Sanborn, who was convicted for the 1989 murder of 16-year-old Jessica Briggs. Sanborn maintained his innocence and a key witness recanted testimony. Sanborn then became the first convicted murderer in Maine history to be released on bail in a landmark 2017 deal with the state.