Defenseless in Maine
Chloe Cushman, special to ProPublica

She was afraid of her lawyer. Then the text messages started.

Leah Kerwin began receiving daily texts and videos explicitly requesting sex. They came from her court-appointed attorney, who had already been suspended for other misconduct. When she spoke up, the situation got worse.

by | October 8, 2020

 

by | October 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. The Maine Monitor is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network

This story contains graphic allegations of sexual harassment. 

 

In January 2016, attorney Paul Letourneau arranged to meet his newest client one evening at Sea Dog Brewing Co., a local brewpub in southern Maine. She had a drug arrest, a shaky relationship and was struggling to hold onto her nursing license.

Defenseless: An investigation into how Maine represents its poorest defendantsLetourneau ordered a beer. They settled into a booth. Suddenly, his phone rang. His daughter was having car trouble, he told her. He asked the woman to wait for him. He’d be back in a second.

As Letourneau walked out, Leah Kerwin watched him with unease. She was out on bail. She wasn’t supposed to be drinking alcohol. And here she was, meeting him alone in a mostly empty bar.

After waiting 10 minutes, Kerwin decided to leave. Just as she reached her car in the parking lot, Letourneau pulled into the spot next to her, she said. He jumped out and strode over — standing so close that she could smell the beer on his breath. Come back inside for another drink, she remembered him asking. 

She knew it was the last time she wanted to be alone with her lawyer.

Problems in plain sight

At the time, Letourneau was working as a lawyer for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. Maine is the only state in the country with no public defenders. Instead, the commission contracts hundreds of private attorneys to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford legal counsel.

John Pelletier, the commission’s executive director, is supposed to supervise his agency’s attorneys. But as detailed in an article this week by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica, Pelletier repeatedly failed to discipline the lawyers whom he contracted, allowing them to continue their work after being criminally prosecuted or cited for legal or ethical malpractice. 

In some cases, these lawyers used their positions of power to manipulate or harass their clients — often female, always poor — at a time when their freedom was at stake.

RELATED: A low bar for public defense

Letourneau is a case in point, records show.

After passing the bar exam in 2003, Letourneau opened a solo practice in South Portland, where he grew up. But it was not long before he ran into his own legal troubles. 

In September 2009, Maine’s Board of Overseers of the Bar, an independent judicial agency that regulates attorney conduct, suspended Letourneau’s license for seven months after he neglected to keep track of the cases of at least eight clients and failed to supervise his legal assistant, disciplinary records show. Six months later, the board again suspended Letourneau when a ninth client came forward and more details emerged on how his legal assistant “actively deceived” clients and Letourneau. 

Despite his disciplinary history, Pelletier approved Letourneau’s application in 2010 to represent poor criminal defendants for the commission.

By 2011, a 10th person had come forward about bad legal advice he received from Letourneau’s office, according to investigations by the board. The board didn’t require Letourneau to stop practicing law, but he was ordered to limit his work to criminal defense.

Paul saw it too and he saw the vulnerability in me. He also saw, I think, how naive I was, and he took advantage of the situation.”

— Leah Kerwin, client of Paul Letourneau in 2016

Pelletier took no action against Letourneau, who was appointed to represent impoverished clients in 470 cases between 2010 and 2016 while working for the commission. Pelletier did not respond to multiple requests for comment and declined to answer written questions. 

No public records indicate that Letourneau conducted himself unprofessionally toward his clients — until he met Kerwin at a time when her life had begun to crumble. 

Kerwin was working days as a nurse at a hospice. Nights were spent caring for the elderly at an assisted living home in southern Maine. She had two kids. Things had settled into a comfortable routine when a new boyfriend came into her life. 

He introduced her to heroin and it seized her. 

RELATED: Defenseless: An investigation into how Maine represents its poorest defendants

As soon as she used the drug, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Their use increased rapidly to the point that he was injecting her in the parking lot before her shift and, at its worst, again during her breaks. She began stealing jewelry from patients and drugs from the hospital to sell for more heroin.

“In a period of six to eight months, I went from zero to 60,” Kerwin said.

In December 2015, six months into using heroin, she wanted it to end. She confessed to the police that she had stolen drugs and patients’ property. She was indicted for felony theft and stealing drugs. She was fired from her jobs. The state began the process of revoking her nursing license.

Jobless and broke, she asked the court to assign her an attorney. On Jan. 12, 2016, the judge appointed Letourneau to her case. 

The devil at the bottom

When Letourneau invited Kerwin to the bar, she had no idea that he had been suspended for past troubles managing his clients. Strung out on heroin and taking methadone every day, Kerwin was counting on Maine to protect her legal rights. She said she felt “terrified.”

“Paul saw it too and he saw the vulnerability in me. He also saw, I think, how naive I was, and he took advantage of the situation,” Kerwin said.

Leah Kerwin endured three months of sexual harassment by her court-appointed attorney while facing felony charges. Illustration by Chloe Cushman, special to ProPublica.

Leah Kerwin endured three months of sexual harassment by her court-appointed attorney while facing felony charges. Illustration by Chloe Cushman, special to ProPublica.

Soon after the meeting at the bar, Letourneau began to exercise orchestrated control over Kerwin. In daily text messages reviewed by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica, he reminded her of meetings or offered rides to court appearances, but he also sent photos of his genitals and repeatedly asked his court-appointed client to meet for oral sex or intercourse.

The ding of Kerwin’s cellphone notifications filled the three-bedroom duplex apartment she shared with the boyfriend who introduced her to heroin, his teenage son and her 9-year-old son. Her older son, who was 20, was no longer living with her.

She tried to ignore the messages. But the volume was overwhelming: text and videos from Letourneau that graphically described his desire to meet her again.

“I would turn him down. But then I would think, if I don’t respond to him he’s going to destroy me. He’s not going to work as hard for me,” said Kerwin, who provided images of the text messages to The Maine Monitor and ProPublica. “The court doesn’t look at me like I’m a real person, they’re looking at me like I’m a junkie. They’re looking at me the same way he is, and he treated me like a junkie whore.”

Hate to break it to you, but you(’re) going to have to meet your lawyer soon, ahh alone.”

— Paul Letourneau, former court-appointed attorney in Maine

Like clockwork around 8 a.m., Letourneau would send Kerwin a message. “Good morning sweetheart,” he’d write. He demanded to know where she was and what she was doing if she was silent too long.

“Hate to break it to you, but you(’re) going to have to meet your lawyer soon,” he said. “Alone.” He ended the texts with a smiley face.

Letourneau did not return phone calls, emails or letters seeking comment. In one court document, he alleged that she encouraged his actions through a “mutual engagement of sexual texts.” He provided no evidence to back his contention. Dozens of messages reviewed by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica did not support his claim either. 

“It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever been through in my life,” Kerwin said. “I had no control and I was just spiraling downward and he was just the devil at the bottom waiting for me.”

Kerwin called the court clerk’s office to ask what she could do to remove a court-appointed attorney who was acting inappropriately. She remembers the woman saying it could take months for her to be assigned a new attorney. And even then it was not guaranteed that a new lawyer would be appointed to her case. 

All Kerwin could picture was the clerk telling Letourneau that she was trying to get away from him. How he would react by destroying her case, allowing authorities to rip her from her children. She hung up without reporting him. 

She felt defenseless. 

A lost chance

Three months had elapsed since the judge assigned Letourneau to Kerwin’s case. He kept sending texts at a relentless pace. On March 28, 2016, for instance, Letourneau sent 10 messages between 8:33 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., asking to meet for sex or for Kerwin to send videos of herself to him so he could masturbate. Kerwin never replied. 

Letourneau laced his texts with apologies — but never stopped his behavior.

“I’ll stop sorry,” Letourneau apologized in one text. Eight minutes later — still with no reply from Kerwin — he asked again if she wanted to have sex or if she would prefer for them to tease each other.  

“I keep secrets for a living,” Letourneau sent at 9:02 a.m. A minute later, “Ok sorry. I’ll stop.”

“Haha that’s so true, never thought about it like that,” Kerwin responded at 9:04 a.m.

“I’ve made up my mind,” Letourneau wrote back five minutes later. “If you wanna no strings attached fuck buddy, I’m here.”

<em>Texts between Leah Kerwin and her court-appointed attorney Paul Letourneau. (Courtesy of Leah Kerwin)</em>

Texts between Paul Letourneau and Leah Kerwin. (Courtesy of Leah Kerwin)

Kerwin decided she could stand it no more. She found a new lawyer in the yellow pages. She was forced to turn to her parents, who scraped together enough money to pay his $5,000 retainer in installments. 

After Kerwin showed her new lawyer the messages, he reported Letourneau to the board of overseers on June 15, 2016. Six weeks later, a judge suspended Letourneau, saying his conduct posed “an ongoing risk of harm to his remaining clients.” 

Pelletier did not move as fast. After learning of the board of overseers’ investigation, he agreed to let Letourneau complete his existing court-appointed cases, according to an email on July 11, 2016. Letourneau would decline new assignments, but he would be allowed to reapply to the commission in the future. Soon after, Letourneau resigned from the commission, according to disciplinary records.

RELATED: The high cost of poor defense

Prosecutors had insisted Kerwin serve 18 months in exchange for a guilty plea, Kerwin said she was told by Letourneau. Her new attorney negotiated the jail sentence down to three months.

It felt like a chance, Kerwin said. But she blew it.

Police searched her apartment on Nov. 19, 2016, to make sure she was complying with the terms of her bail agreement. Reports detail that they found nearly 8 grams of fentanyl — a powerful heroin-like substance — in her bag. She was arrested and charged with drug possession, violating bail and drug trafficking, court records show. After being assigned another court-appointed attorney, she was sentenced to nine months in the Cumberland County Jail and was released early for good behavior.

Kerwin had served her sentence. How, she wondered, would Letourneau be punished?

Punishment

Letourneau stared straight ahead as Kerwin sat at the table next to him. The board of overseers asked her to testify in its case to determine whether he’d violated professional standards. The judge listened intently as Kerwin described how the unsolicited text messages started almost as soon as she met him. How she hid the humiliating pictures and videos of him masturbating from her boyfriend and young son. 

She got halfway through before the words caught in her throat. 

I keep secrets for a living.”

— Paul Letourneau, former court-appointed attorney in Maine

“I’m trying to explain to the judge this story and he’s very kind and listening to me and trying to be compassionate,” Kerwin recalled. “We had to go into a courtroom that was half the size of a regular courtroom. So, this guy is 5 feet, 10 feet away from me. It was so traumatizing.”

On Jan. 25, 2018, a state Supreme Court justice rendered a decision. Letourneau would be suspended from practice for 20 months for “sexting” his client. The justice counted the 16 previous months of suspension as time served, disciplinary records show. Letourneau could seek reinstatement as early as April 1 of that year. Letourneau did not testify or provide a written statement to the judge in his defense. 

Kerwin attempted to hold Letourneau accountable one more time. She filed a civil lawsuit against him — but she dropped it when it became evident she was unlikely to recoup much money.

Letourneau has not reapplied for reinstatement to the state bar. He will be able to practice law again in Maine if the board of overseers and a judge agree to end his suspension. For a time, he drove for Uber in Portland. His LinkedIn profile says he now lives in Philadelphia driving as a courier.

News of the case troubled some of the board members who serve on the commission.

Josh Tardy, an attorney and former Republican state lawmaker appointed chair of the commission in 2019, said he was disturbed by Letourneau’s conduct and Kerwin’s treatment when informed of the case by a reporter.

“This sounds like this person was a crime victim,” Tardy said.

On Tuesday, the commission began consideration of sweeping rule changes for the hiring and firing of state defense lawyers. Among the changes is a prohibition of “romantic or sexual contact between rostered counsel and client.” 

Kerwin said that she’s now sober with the help of Suboxone, a medication for treating opioid addiction. Her youngest son lives with her. His laughter punctuates the conversation from behind a closed door. She doesn’t want him to hear parts of her story.

She worked a retail job until April when she was laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, she is enrolled in a medical coding and billing course at a local community college. She hopes to be able to return to work as a nurse, though she knows that will be difficult given her criminal record.

She may never be a nurse again. But Letourneau could practice as an attorney. 

The thought upsets her. It baffles her that Pelletier didn’t immediately bar Letourneau from representing indigent clients in 2016.

“Does it have to get more severe than my case?” Kerwin asked. “Is my case not severe enough in his eyes?”

Samantha Hogan

Samantha Hogan

Samantha Hogan, The Maine Monitor’s first full-time reporter, focuses on a range of government accountability projects. A 2019-2020 corps member for Report for America, she is spending this year reporting exclusively on Maine's court system through ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. Samantha previously worked for The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, covering state politics, agriculture, the environment and energy, and interned twice for The Washington Post. She lives with her cat Ida – named for the mother of investigative journalism, Ida Tarbell.


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