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Janet Mills signs bill giving subpoena powers to Lewiston shooting commission

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media prior to signing into law a bill expanding access to abortions later in pregnancy, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media prior to signing into law a bill expanding access to abortions later in pregnancy, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed an emergency bill on Tuesday that will give subpoena powers to the commission investigating the worst mass shooting in state history.

The new law, which goes into effect immediately, is designed to give the state commission the ability to compel witness testimony and the release of documents as it investigates the rampage that killed 18 people and wounded more than a dozen others.

The commission requested subpoena power last fall and its executive director Anne Jordan recently told state lawmakers that some witnesses had either refused to testify or said they had been told by their supervisors not to.

While the director didn't provide specifics, she did say that the commission had run into problems obtaining information from the Army.

The gunman, Robert Card, was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, and his superiors have come under scrutiny for not doing more to alert law enforcement about his increasingly paranoid and threatening behavior.

The Army's conduct is also subject of a review by its inspector general.

Card was a member of a U.S. Army Reserve unit based in Saco, where he has been described as a "firearms instructor." He spent two weeks at a psychiatric hospital in New York in July after leaders of his unit brought him to a military hospital because of his erratic and aggressive behavior. Neither the Army nor New York State Police, who were called to assist during the incident, have disclosed what information, if any, was transmitted back to Maine about Card.

Members of Card's family had also expressed concerns with police in Maine about his increasing paranoia and access to guns months before the Oct. 25 shooting. After a fellow reservist told unit leaders in September that he believed Card was "going to snap and do a mass shooting," a Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office deputy tried unsuccessfully twice to speak with Card at his Bowdoin home.

Maine has a "yellow flag" law that allows police to seek to force someone to temporarily relinquish their guns if a medical professional and a judge agree that they pose a threat to themselves or others. The Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office never attempted to use the law, however, and instead received assurances from Card's family and Army Reserve leaders that they would try to remove his guns and get him into treatment. Six weeks later, Card used a high-powered assault-style rifle to kill 18 and wound 13 others at two Lewiston businesses.

Use of Maine's "yellow flag" law has surged since the Lewiston shooting. But critics contend that Maine's law is weaker than the "red flag" laws used in more than 20 other states because it only allows police to begin the process and requires a medical examination.

The governor created an independent commission to review what happened before the shootings occurred, law enforcement's response to the shooting and the manhunt for Card.

So far it has heard from families of victims, officials with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office, the Lewiston Police and the Lisbon Police. It's scheduled to take testimony from the Maine State Police later this week.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.