Over the years, Camden defense attorney Jeremy Pratt said he’s probably had a thousand clients who’ve faced a grand jury.
All of them were indicted.
But that streak ended this week, when a Knox County grand jury declined to indict his client Dorian Ames, of Vinalhaven, in connection with the death of an island man at his home last month. His client’s wife, Briannah Ames, who was represented by a different attorney, was also vindicated.
It’s still unclear what happened the night of Sunday, June 14, when Roger Feltis, 28, died of knife wounds during a confrontation at the Ames home on Roberts Cemetery Road. And the public may never know, now that a grand jury has stopped the case from advancing through the courts.
That’s a surprise, even for Pratt, who was prepared to defend Dorian Ames in what likely would have been a high-profile homicide trial.
“I always assumed the grand jury was a rubber stamp of the state, so it was great to see a grand jury make a deliberate, independent decision,” he said.
Grand juries are convened to consider whether felony charges should be brought against a suspect, but the proceedings are conducted in private. That means it’s difficult to say why some cases don’t get prosecuted. Some defense attorneys believe the lack of transparency in grand jury proceedings is problematic, and in a once-in-a-decade case like this, it’s left friends and family of Feltis wondering if justice has been served.
“The Maine justice system has failed horribly, again,” Ben Lufkin, one of Feltis’ best friends, said Friday, July 10. “I want answers. I need closure, somehow.”
In order for an indictment to be returned, a majority of the grand jurors – who in Maine number between 13 and 23 – must find probable cause that a defendant committed a specific crime after hearing evidence from the prosecutor. The defendant and the defense attorney aren’t in the room, and typically, it’s relatively easy for the prosecutor to get an indictment.
So not getting one in this case seems unusual, to say the least, according to some attorneys.
Darrick X. Banda, of Augusta, a former prosecutor who is not involved in this matter, questions whether prosecutors were prepared to make their case.
“Maybe the (Maine Attorney General’s) Office really thought a crime had occurred, and maybe the grand jurors disagreed with their assessment. But in the real world, that doesn’t often happen that way,” Banda said. “There are often other motivations at play for using the grand jury for political cover. I’m not saying that happened here. But with the infrequency that murder cases get no-billed, one has to wonder.”
Marc Malon, spokesperson for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said the state doesn’t track the number of times that grand juries fail to return indictments in homicide cases. But one other instance occurred in 2010, when a Penobscot County grand jury declined to return an indictment in the death of Ralph N. Greenleaf, who was killed outside of a bar underneath the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge in Bangor.
“The grand jury is made up of the citizens of the county in which they sit and represent the conscience of the community,” Malon said. “The state respects the grand jury process as well as the decisions of the grand jury.”
Details about the events of the night Feltis died and the circumstances around his death have been sparse. Feltis, a sternman on a lobster boat, moved to Vinalhaven from Waldoboro less than a year ago in search of a fresh start, but became embroiled in conflict on the island with Dorian and Briannah Ames.
Jennie Candage, Feltis’ girlfriend, told the Bangor Daily News they went to a Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputy stationed on Vinalhaven to file a harassment complaint against Dorian Ames just days before Feltis was allegedly stabbed to death at the man’s home.
In the hours before he died, Feltis told several people that he was going there to confront Dorian Ames. Rumors about what happened next that night are rampant, but so far, no official reports have been made public about the incident.
What is known is that police responded to a call at the Vinalhaven home just before 10 p.m. on June 14 after receiving a report of a man bleeding from his neck and a woman with a partially severed hand following a fight. Briannah Ames was taken by LifeFlight helicopter to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, where she was treated and released. Feltis later died from wounds sustained in the fight.
In a Facebook Live video posted Wednesday, July 8 that had been viewed more than 13,000 times by Friday morning, Dorian and Briannah Ames said they acted in self-defense that night and they didn’t mean for Feltis to die.
“Nobody wanted to see him dead. Nobody,” Briannah Ames said.
And Dorian Ames maintained they had committed no crime.
“Not even one,” he said.
But even as the couple maintain their innocence, it hasn’t appeased others on the island who organized multiple demonstrations in the days after Feltis’ death, demanding answers from police in the case.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police ruled the death a homicide, after reviewing the autopsy.
“A homicide just means that the death was caused by somebody else’s act. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t justified,” Banda said, adding that when a person is charged with homicide in Maine, it can be hard for them to prevail. “There are not many acquittals for murder in this state. They’re rare because I think generally the (Attorney General’s) Office doesn’t bring a homicide case unless it was a strong case.”
A former New York state judge famously said in 1985 that district attorneys have so much influence on grand juries that, by and large, they could persuade them to “indict a ham sandwich.”
It’s more than just a snappy quote.
“It’s a one-sided presentation by the prosecutor,” Banda said. “That’s where the expression comes from.”
But it wasn’t easy for prosecutors in this case, and he and other attorneys have serious concerns with the secretive grand jury process.
Logan Perkins, a defense attorney from Belfast, said while the process is meant to protect witnesses from reprisal and to be a citizen’s check on the power of the prosecutor, the proceedings often rely on testimony from law enforcement. Police need to be reliable, effective witnesses, she said. And the effectiveness of police has been called into question in this case because they’ve been thinly stretched on the island for years.
“In reality, it is this very one-sided hearing,” Perkins said. “And we don’t have any way to measure the job the prosecutors did on behalf of the Maine taxpayers. I’m a taxpayer. I want to know how good of a job the state prosecutors are doing prosecuting a homicide case. How are you going to measure that, because it’s all in secret?”
Banda said it leaves some to wonder: “Did the prosecutor go in and tank it?”
“This is a cynical view, but sometimes prosecutors will intentionally tank it, because maybe they don’t think the case is that strong,” he said. “They’ll publicly blame the grand jury for the lack of the indictment, so they don’t have to take the heat.”
But Lufkin, who was getting ready to help spread his friend’s ashes at sea over the weekend, said he considers the whole system to be at fault.
“There’s no justice at all,” he said.