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SJC orders new trial for Somerville man in 1986 murder case

The state’s highest court Friday ruled that a Somerville man is entitled to a new trial after forensic testing showed that there was no invisible blood on a purple jacket, which was the only piece of physical evidence linking him to a 1986 murder in Cambridge.

In a 7-to-0 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Michael J. Sullivan’s first-degree murder trial in Middlesex Superior Court was fundamentally flawed by the testimony of a former State Police chemist who testified that chemical testing showed invisible blood on Sullivan’s jacket.

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New, more sophisticated forensic testing shows that there was no blood, invisible or otherwise, on the cuffs of the jacket that the prosecution's star witness testified Sullivan wore when 54-year-old Wilfred McGrath was beaten to death in March 1986, the court said.

That prosecution witness, Gary Grace, had murder charges dropped in return for testifying against Sullivan and served about six years in prison, records show. A defense witness, Emil Petrla, testified that he and Grace killed McGrath, not Sullivan. Petrla’s testimony led to a second-degree murder sentence, which he continues to serve.

The only independent evidence that would help jurors choose who was telling the truth, Grace or Petrla, was the purple jacket, the SJC said. “We cannot ignore the fact that but for the purple jacket, the jury would not have been presented with any physical evidence connecting the defendant’s person to the crime scene or the victim’s blood,’’ Justice Francis X. Spina wrote.

He added, “The new evidence negates a key piece of physical evidence that the prosecution relied on in arguing that the jury should credit Grace’s testimony.’’

The court struck down Sullivan’s first-degree murder conviction, which the same court upheld in 1991. If the SJC had not sided with Sullivan in this latest round of litigation, he probably would have spent the remainder of his life behind bars.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, whose office inherited the case, said in a statement she is “reviewing the court’s decision in this matter and in the days and weeks ahead will consider all of our legal options.”

But Sullivan’s defense attorney, Dana Curhan, urged prosecutors to finally end the prosecution of Sullivan, who Curhan has argued since 1991 was wrongly convicted in the case. Curhan said Sullivan was released from state prison in 2013 after Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman made the original decision to overturn the conviction.

Sullivan did, however, spend 26 years behind bars, Curhan said.

“He’s very happy” by the SJC ruling in his favor, Curhan said. Since being released, he added, Sullivan has “been trying to get his life back together.”

“He just got his driver’s license,” Curhan said. “He was working for a while. He’s just trying to reconnect with the world.’’

According to court records, McGrath was lured to an apartment in East Cambridge where he was robbed of jewelry, money, and cocaine. Beaten but still alive, McGrath was wrapped in a blanket and dumped behind an abandoned supermarket, where his body was found in March 1986, authorities said.

Curhan said the State Police chemist who testified in the 1987 trial was Robert Pino, who was fired by the Patrick administration in 2007 after the discovery that he allegedly mishandled DNA samples at the State Police lab where he worked. In 1987, Pino testified that he found blood on the cuff of Sullivan’s jacket.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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