Roger writing the LAWmag
Oct 2011

The Case of Angela Palmer Raises the Spectre of the Death Penalty

Prying open the objective facts of the death of Angela Palmer is difficult even for the seasoned criminal law lawyer. No Stephen King novel ever told of true facts so horrific.

Angela Palmer was four years old, inside hewr home, the second-floor apartment of a maize-colored apartment building at 317 Main Street, Auburn, Maine (near Lewiston).

John Lane, 37, was dating her mother, Cynthia Palmer, 30, and they had started a common law relationship. This new apartment was to be their new beginning, with the two little Palmer girls.

On the night of October 27, 1984, in keeping with one of Cynthia's several subsequent versions of the facts, as she later advanced one after the other,  was that she was voluntarily stoned on an overdose of prescription drugs, that she was oblivious of the assault upon her daughter in the kitchen. She blurted out to the police that arrived on the scene not concern for the well-being of her 4-year old, but:

"I didn't do it. He did."

John LaneWhen her and John were led down the stairs to police vans, the two reached for each other and hugged, her arms readily around him.

In a letter she later wrote her mother from prison, Cynthia alleged that she was aware of the beating and when she tried to intervene, John beat her unconscious.

Certainly, Angela’s sister, 5-year-old daughter and survivor Sarah, heard it all from an adjacent room.

After punching the youngest Angela, John Lane forced the little girl into the oven in the kitchen, wedged a chair against the door so it could not be pushed open from the inside, and turned the heat on as high as it would go.

Apparently, at 12:30 PM, neighbors heard words that now resonate with the most profound sadness the English language could convey:

"Let me out, Daddy, let me out!"

This, together with what sounded like banging and bumping, but the neighbors did not call the police. According to evidence later presented in court, the child had suffered  a "severe scalp laceration" before being placed in the oven.

The little girl screamed in pain until the oven finally went silent, as her body burned, eventually smouldering. It was the smell and smoke of this fire that would bring a local police officer to the scene some two hours later to investigate; that and, finally, noise complaints in regards to the loud religious music blaring from the apartment.

Indeed, when the police officer opened the door, smoke poured out. The officer tracked the smoke back to the oven and opened the door.

A month later, the responding officer quit his job. He could no longer function because of what he had seen on that October day.

Lane and Palmer were arrested on the spot and charged with murder, although the charge against Cynthia was later reduced to manslaughter.

The community was beyond shocked. John Lane was working on a defence theory, insanity, telling the police officers that the little girl was the devil, that she had turned green and ugly and was trying to kill him, referring to herself as Lucifer. His theme was novel: he was in the midst of exorcizing the devil from his stoned girlfriend and the young child had made the fatal mistake of interfering.

A rookie judge, Bruce Chandler, was assigned to the trial. Both Lane and Cynthia Palmer’s attorneys were clever enough to avoid a jury trials but it did not save Lane; he was convicted of murder in spite of his plea of insanity.

While awaiting trial, his cell-mates tried to set him on fire. Lane was rescued by prison guards and then had the temerity to file a formal complaint about the incident.

In November of 1985, Lane was sentenced to life in prison. Maine did not have the death penalty having rescinded it from their statute books in 1887.

Still in sentencing Lane, Mr. Justice Chandler may have been one of few to feel gratitude:

"I am very grateful that Maine law does not allow the death penalty because your crime tests the very out-most limits of my belief that that penalty is never a correct one."

Cynthia Palmer, because the Court believed that she was comatose at the time of the crime, was acquitted. Her first words upon release were not for her lost daughter. They were for herself:

"Oh thank you God! Freedom!"


The cover of the next day's edition of the Bangor News carried a picture of a beaming, smiling Cynthia Palmer as she left the Penobscot County Superior Courthouse in Bangor, Maine a free woman.

No Aftermath

Cynthia Palmer tried but did not get custody of her other daughter back from Maine children services. Sarah was likely adopted.

Cynthia Palmer is reported as having died in 2005, cause of death unknown.

After the Lane conviction, the Government of Maine reinforced child protection investigations and went from being a state renowned for laxity to one of the more progressive American child protection jurisdictions.

John Lane is still inside the Maine State Prison serving his life sentence.

Two different reactions.

One, strong with Justice Chandler that even in this most egregious of crimes, the death penalty is unwarranted.

The other, probably lining up to pull the switch, as humanity, justice and law continues to agonize and struggle with the place of the death penalty within a modern justice system.


Posted in Crime and Criminal Law

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