In a 31-part Portland Press Herald series on the Passamaquoddy tribe’s epic struggles with Maine, “Unsettled,” I told the story of Donald Gellers, the idealistic young attorney who, in the 1960s, joined forces with Chief George Francis to challenge legal, civil rights, and material abuses of the tribe and its members by state officials, law enforcement, the courts, and local businesspeople. Upon returning home from filing a suit that sought redress for a $150 million trust fund and 10,000 acres of reserved land stolen by Maine — the fund alone worth $1.1 billion in today’s dollars — he was arrested in a sting and raid that would be comic if its results were not so tragic and charged with “constructive possession” of six marijunaa cigarettes allegedly found in the pocket of a jacket in his upstairs closet.
The sordid case — prosecuted by the head of the Attorney General’s office criminal division, Dick Cohen, and his assistant, John Kelly — resulted in a 2 to 4 year prison sentence and, most importantly, Gellers’ disbarment in Maine, ending his ability to represent his clients. Gellers, with Cohen’s tacit approval, fled to Israel, where the Justice Ministry found the case against him so absurd they admitted him to practice law without reservation. When he returned to New York in the 1980s — now a rabbi — U.S. federal courts did too.
On Tuesday — five years after his death from cancer — Gellers received a full pardon from Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a former Attorney General and career prosecutor who was overcome with emotion while outlining the litany of outrages connected with the state’s prosecution. It is the first posthumous pardon known to have been issued in Maine’s 200 year history, and also likely the only one to be granted on the grounds that the state had persecuted someone with bad intent. It is also likely to further the attempt to heal the rift between the state and Maine’s tribes.
I attended the ceremony at the State House and wrote this dispatch for the Press Herald. I also covered the emotional October 2019 pardon hearing in Augusta, where Gellers’ brother and leading tribal figures spoke out in his defense.
For a full accounting of the disturbing story of Gellers, the tribe, a horrific murder, the arrest, and the aftermath, please read the first thirteen chapters (and Chapter 29) of “Unsettled,” which can be found here and is also available as a Press Herald e-book from Amazon, iTunes, or wherever you buy your electronic books. I also wrote this obituary after Gellers died.
I spoke with WCSH-6/WLBZ-2’s NewsCenter Maine about Gellers’ life on Tuesday evening. At available here. I also spoke with Susan Sharon of MainePublic. [Update, 1/15/20: NPR’s “Morning Edition” did a story today as well.
The implicit, official censure of the state’s behavior in the case is sobering for Maine’s legal community, which in the late 1960s was extremely cozy. Many of the figures who participated in the prosecution were colleagues, mentors, or family members of people who are leading figures in the state’s legal circles today. Judge William Silsby — whose decisions during Gellers’ 1970 hearing to be granted a new trial when evidence of a state conspiracy was uncovered will raise many eyebrows — is the father of Maine Superior Court Judge Herbert Silsby and grandfather of former US Attorney for Maine Paula Silsby. Attorney General James Erwin, where the proverbial buck stops, went on to be a two time Republican gubernatorial nominee, and his son is a prominent attorney who also served as Attorney General. Dick Cohen rose to become Attorney General, and Governor Mills herself worked for him for four years as a young assistant attorney general in the late 1970s; Cohen was appointed US Attorney by Ronald Reagan. John Kelly — who arrested Gellers in Eastport and prosecuted the case with Cohen — sits on Governor Mills’ pardon board and, so, had to recuse himself.
“These 50 years have been very, very painful years,” Gellers told me a few months before his death, noting that his fugitive status had always hung over his head, waiting to be dropped on him by any opponent.
“It is a ‘Les Miserables’ story, and I am Jean Valjean,” he said, referring to the Victor Hugo novel. “It’s not simply a one-shot outrage, and when something like this is done it carries repercussions for life. These candlesticks are with me forever.”
He said he had never sought a pardon from a governor of Maine, and I asked whether he would ever want one. “Well, yes,” he said. “Yes, that would be nice.”