The state acknowledges that Frederick Weichel spent 36 years in prison for a crime he may not have committed. But that’s not enough to earn him compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Four years after a judge overturned his 1981 murder conviction, ruling that investigators had withheld evidence that may have helped him prove his innocence, Weichel, 69, has filed a lawsuit that seeks as much as $1 million in compensation. But the state is contesting Weichel’s claim, arguing that even if Weichel didn’t kill Robert LaMonica, he knew the man who did and “helped him escape justice,” a crime that bars him from collecting compensation.
In a motion opposing the dismissal of Weichel’s lawsuit, his attorneys wrote that the state’s tactics “demean the justice system.”
“For 40 years, the Commonwealth claimed somebody saw Fred fleeing from the scene of the murder and he was the murderer,” said Mark Loevy-Reyes, a lawyer who represents Weichel. “Now, when it realized the evidence just cannot support that fallacy, it wants to create a fictional account to deny Fred compensation.”
Attorney General Maura Healey declined to comment on Weichel’s case, but said her office’s goal is “to get it right,” either by settling a lawsuit or letting a judge or jury decide.
“Wrongful conviction cases often involve decades-old criminal convictions and tragic underlying circumstances, and are hard on everyone involved, particularly on families and victims who have already been through a lot,” she said in a statement. “We always seek to resolve these cases in a manner that is fair, efficient, respectful, and consistent with the applicable law, which requires that the plaintiff prove he or she is actually innocent of both the charged crime and any other related offenses.”
Suffolk Superior Judge Anthony M. Campo has not ruled on the state’s motion to dismiss. The case is currently slated for trial in November.
The case offers a window into the state’s handling of wrongful conviction compensation claims as the Innocence Project and other advocacy groups across the country push for criminal justice reforms and demand a fresh look at old convictions that hinged on questionable evidence.
Under state law, former prisoners who were wrongfully convicted can sue the state for compensation, but must prove they are innocent of the crime, or any other felony related to it, by “clear and convincing evidence,” a tougher standard than many states require.
Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Healey, said convictions are overturned for a variety of reasons and noted that “not every person who has had his/her conviction overturned is actually innocent of the underlying crime and therefore entitled to compensation.”
For former prisoners who were not clearly exonerated through DNA evidence, this means they have to undertake the wrenching task of having to prove their innocence after a court has ruled they should not have been convicted.
“A wrongful conviction is just a unique horror that no one should have to go through and the fact that they are basically relitigating their innocence in order to get basic restitution to begin their lives again is tragic,” said Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the New York-based Innocence Project.
About 100 people have sued the state under the compensation law since it was adopted in 2004, resulting in more than $16.8 million in payments to 39 people, according to state figures. Twenty-one claims are pending, five were rejected by a jury, and the remainder were dismissed. The law doesn’t preclude people from seeking additional damages by filing civil rights suits in state or federal courts; Weichel has such a suit pending in federal court.
All but two of the 39 cases that resulted in payments by the state were settled before trial, with awards ranging from $9,300 to $1 million, records show. Awards were initially capped at $500,000 but were increased in 2018 to a maximum of $1 million. Seven lawsuits went to trial, with only two resulting in compensation.
Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, said it is shocking that people like Weichel are released from prison after decades with no government assistance as they try to rebuild their lives, while often waiting years for their civil claims to be resolved.
“There is not a single thing set up for you even though you did nothing wrong and the government put you in prison,” Natarajan said.
The state’s opposition to Weichel’s bid extends a long legal saga. In 2004, a judge granted Weichel a new trial on the basis of a 1982 letter that Weichel’s friend, Thomas Barrett, purportedly wrote to Weichel’s mother, confessing that he had killed LaMonica. Two years later, the state Supreme Judicial Court overruled the judge, keeping Weichel in prison.
In 2013, Whitey Bulger, the South Boston crime boss, also pointed to Barrett as the true killer, according to court filings. In letters from prison, Bulger wrote that the killer was an unnamed boxer, identified by Weichel’s lawyers as Barrett, who had confided to him in 1980 that he was scared because he had badly beaten a man in a street fight and a friend of the victim’s, LaMonica, was vowing revenge. Bulger said he advised Barrett to kill LaMonica.
In 2017, Superior Court Judge Raymond P. Veary Jr. ordered Weichel’s conviction overturned, ruling that the case against him rested on tenuous eyewitness identification. A teenager, who had drank four or five beers, heard gunshots shortly after midnight and briefly saw a fleeing suspect from 180 feet away. He helped police compile a composite sketch of the suspect and later identified Weichel as the shooter while police drove him and the victim’s two brothers around South Boston.
The judge also found that Weichel may have been acquitted if authorities had shared a police report with the defense before trial that indicated 10 prison guards believed the composite sketch resembled an inmate who was on a furlough around the time of Lamonica’s slaying.
Norfolk county prosecutors insisted that he had not been exonerated, but said they would not retry him because witnesses had died and evidence had been lost or destroyed.
In its court filings, Healey’s office argued that even if Weichel didn’t kill LaMonica and wasn’t present when he was killed, he was barred from collecting compensation because he knew Barrett killed LaMonica and arranged for him to stay with a friend in California.
Weichel’s lawyers said Weichel didn’t know who killed LaMonica. They said Barrett was living in California under his own name and was never charged with the killing.
Weichel, who was sentenced to life in prison at 28 and won his freedom at 65, emerged to a vastly different world. He said he receives about $840 a month from social security, lives in a South Boston senior housing complex, and relies on the generosity of friends and family to get by.
“It’s a struggle,” Weichel said. He said he is grateful for his freedom and trying to make up for lost time but can’t afford to do many things he would like to, like going to restaurants, taking a boat ride, or treating friends. The fight to be compensated for the decades he lost is forcing him to relive “36 years of hell,” he said. “It’s like it’s never ending.”