After 34 years behind bars, a Chelsea man was freed last week as the courts determine whether he will get a new trial in the 1985 murder of a woman in Dorchester.
Thomas Rosa Jr., 59, has maintained his innocence since he was arrested in 1985 in the murder of Gwendolyn Taylor, an 18-year-old who worked as a nurse’s aid for a Cambridge nursing home.
Rosa was released under the order of a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in part because of the strength of DNA evidence obtained after Rosa’s conviction, according to his attorneys at the New England Innocence Project and the Boston College Innocence Program.
On Oct. 15, Rosa’s son, Emmanuel, walked him down the steps outside the MCI-Norfolk prison. Rosa had been imprisoned for Emmanuel’s entire life — the younger man was born in 1986 while his father faced trial in Taylor’s murder.
As he left with his son, Rosa recalled the moment that his lawyers told him he would be freed.
“They said I have some happy news and I got very happy," Rosa said on a cellphone video provided by his lawyers. "Sometimes you always thought this day would never happen.”
“My eyes got watered up and all the guys said, ‘It’s happening?!’ and I said, ‘It’s happening!’”
“I’m telling you, it was the greatest feeling ever.”
Rosa’s legal team filed a motion for a new trial on June 29. Justice Frank Gaziano issued his decision Oct. 14 allowing Rosa to be freed as the court considers the motion.
“The DNA evidence, if correct, in conjunction with the Defendant’s other claims, could well establish that ‘confluence of factors’ that would indicate that a new trial is required," Gaziano wrote.
Among the new DNA evidence is a stained coat found in Rosa’s Dorchester apartment after Taylor’s murder. Prosecutors at the time said the stain was from Taylor’s saliva, but new testing shows the saliva contains only male DNA, Rosa’s lawyers said.
“If this evidence is accurate, it would also call into question substantial other portions of the evidence at trial," Gaziano wrote.
Rosa has already been tried three times in the case. The first trial ended in a hung jury. Rosa was convicted in the second trial but his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court. He was again convicted in a third trial in 1993 and was sentenced to life in prison.
Taylor was abducted outside her Dorchester home in the early hours of Dec. 7, 1985. Her body was found later that morning in a car parked in the lot behind an auto repair shop just a block from her apartment building.
Taylor was strangled with the sleeve of her own sweater, an autopsy revealed. But the sweater was misplaced between Rosa’s second trial in 1986 and the third trial seven years later, according to Charlotte Whitmore, an attorney with the Boston College Innocence Program who has been working on the case.
Both the state and Rosa’s defense team are still working to find the sweater, Whitmore said, believing it could contain key DNA evidence.
An investigation into the issues raised in Rosa’s motion for a new trial will likely take “many months,” Gaziano wrote, which places Rosa “at unnecessary risk of serious harm or death from COVID-19.”
The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office supported Rosa’s release through a petition to the single justice arguing that Rosa’s motion for a new trial has merit, he presents no danger to the public, and his age and health conditions put him at risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison, his attorneys said.
Rosa is prohibited from leaving the state under the terms of his parole, according to the SJC order.
Whitmore, the attorney with the Boston College Innocence Program, said Rosa’s release was very moving. She captured the moment on her cell phone.
Both men wore masks that hid their smiles as they stepped out into the morning sunshine. In the video, Rosa tells Whitmore they had a “crying moment” inside the prison before coming out.
“It was really special to see,” Whitmore said. “It never loses its magic to see someone who’s been wrongfully incarcerated, especially as long as Mr. Rosa has, to see that first moment of freedom.”
The first order of business for Rosa was to get a COVID-19 test, but there was something else he wanted first, something simple.
“All Mr. Rosa wanted was a coffee,” Whitmore said with a soft laugh. “I said he had to go straight to his test, but his son said there’d be a Dunkin' on the way, one with a drive-thru."