Judge says criminal proceedings against South Portland teen will remain open

Sep. 18—A judge ruled Monday that the criminal proceedings against a teenager accused of trying to recruit another person into a scheme to kill members of the South Portland High School community will remain open to the public, but said that for the time being he will continue to restrict the types of information prosecutors can share publicly.

Tristan Hamilton, who turned 17 last week, was charged this month with criminal solicitation, arson and terrorizing. On Monday, he appeared before District Court Judge Peter Darvin while a group of about half a dozen South Portland staff members — who prosecutors say were potential targets of Hamilton's alleged plan — lined the rows of the Cumberland County courtroom in Portland. The hearing on the defense's motions to seal the charging petition and to close future hearings was the first court appearance members of the public have been allowed to attend in the high-profile case.

Darvin agreed with prosecutor Abigail Couture's argument that the public interest in learning more about the case outweighed Hamilton's right to privacy as a minor. But even though Darvin denied both defense motions, he barred Couture from sharing new information about the facts of the case in front of hearing attendees and reserved the right to make similar rules at future court proceedings.

"It's not the intention of the court to keep the public in the dark," he said. "There will be proceedings when the public will be fully informed. That day is coming in the not-so-distant future."


The arrest of the then unnamed South Portland teenager and his father following a SWAT raid on their home drew widespread attention in April, especially after South Portland Police Chief Dan Ahern told the media that the teen had planned to cause serious harm to individuals and groups using specific weapons and that the arrest likely stopped a violent attack on the community. Police said they seized several high-powered rifles during the raid.

For months, details about the investigation have remained elusive. Under Maine law, the public is barred from accessing juvenile criminal court records and proceedings in all cases but those involving the most serious Class A crimes. The Press Herald learned of the teenager's identity weeks after his arrest when prosecutors charged him with arson, criminal mischief and theft. But because the charges appeared unrelated to the threats Ahern described — a charging document referenced a stolen flag and a damaged trash bin but did not specify whether the teenager is accused of burning the flag or something else — the newspaper elected at the time not to name Hamilton.

On Sept. 5, the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office filed a new set of charges that appeared more closely linked with the SWAT raid. According to the petition, sometime between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30, 2022, Hamilton, "under circumstances that he believed made it probable that the crime would take place ... did command or attempt to induce another person ... to commit murder against faculty, staff and/or students at South Portland High School."

He also allegedly committed a separate act of arson sometime between January 2021 and April 2023 and threatened another person, referenced only by their initials, by making a throat-slitting gesture sometime between May 1 and Aug. 11 of this year.

Given the seriousness of the charges, the Press Herald named Hamilton and his father, Adam Hamilton, who was arrested and charged with obstructing his son's arrest and then refusing to submit to arrest himself during the April raid.


While the severity of the charges against Hamilton meant the petition was available for public viewing, other documents remain sealed and strict rules around access to juvenile proceedings left open the question of whether the public would ever be able to learn more details about the case or attend any hearings. The initial arson charge against Hamilton was sealed just days after prosecutors filed it when a judge agreed with Hamilton's attorneys that it should remain confidential, according to a letter filed with the court from Hamilton's defense attorney, Amber Miller.

Miller and co-counsel Mark Peltier attempted once again on Monday to keep the case against Hamilton out of the public view by filing motions to seal the new petition and to close future hearings.

Peltier argued that his client was already being "ostracized" because of the allegations against him and said that allowing the case to garner more attention could negatively impact his future. He said Hamilton has lost jobs and is struggling to find a way to obtain his high school degree as a result of the case.

"A lot of this can't be undone," Peltier said. "No matter what happens in this case, I think there's going to be harm."

Darvin agreed that courts have a duty to protect the privacy of minors like Hamilton. But he said that given the threats of "extreme violence" in the petition, the public's interest in following the case outweighed privacy concerns — particularly because the Press Herald already had published Hamilton's identity.

Yet even as he denied the defense's attempts to close future hearings, he frustrated prosecutors by largely muzzling them during Monday's proceedings.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris said she and her team met with South Portland staff and administrators Monday morning to discuss the case and the open questions surrounding their rights to follow the proceedings as potential victims named in court documents. Some, including Superintendent Tim Matheney, were prepared to testify at Monday's hearing about the culture of fear and uncertainty within the school community, while other students, teachers, parents and staff submitted written testimony describing similar problems, Sartoris said.

"The feedback we've gotten certainly is one of tremendous concern, uncertainty, fearfulness for the safety of that community," she said after the hearing. "In the absence of any information, it's very difficult to assess whether your level concern is warranted or not."

Yet in a written decision issued only hours before the hearing, Darvin limited prosecutors' ability to shed new light on the charges against Hamilton. While he accepted several pages of testimony from community members into the written record, which is not publicly accessible, he barred it from being read aloud for hearing attendees to hear. He also limited the discussion of facts to written arguments, which also are sealed to the public.

Darvin denied Couture's multiple requests during the hearing to reconsider his decision.

"I issued the written order with a lot of thought," he said. "I don't know why you think I would reconsider my written order from when I submitted it."


Darvin said the statutes governing juvenile privacy appeared ill-equipped for this case, which prosecutors argue is unprecedented in Maine. Though the letter of the law suggests hearings should be open if the petition is publicly available, he said he would continue to set restrictions on factual discussions in open court for the time being in order to limit the spread of unfounded accusations that could harm Hamilton's future.

"We live in a world now where public access to information could mean widespread dissemination of that information — as well as as permanence," he said. "The internet and other things do not allow for erasure."

Hamilton soon will soon enter an appearance in the case for the first time, though that date had not yet been scheduled as of Monday afternoon, Darvin said. The defendant, sitting in front of his parents in a white dress shirt, spoke only briefly during the hearing to confirm that he understood his rights and the charges against him.

His attorneys did not respond to a request to discuss the case.

While Hamilton is not in custody, prosecutors and Darvin said they are confident he is not currently a threat to the community.