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Jury awards man $33 million over wrongful conviction after trial where ‘Whitey’ Bulger loomed large

Jury finds Fred Weichel was innocent of 1980 slaying that sent him to prison for nearly 36 years.

Fred Weichel speaks after jury awards him $33 million over wrongful conviction
Frederick Weichel spoke outside the courtroom in Suffolk Superior Court on Oct. 18, 2022, after a civil jury awarded him $33 million for wrongful conviction.

In a swift and decisive verdict, a Suffolk Superior Court civil jury found Tuesday that Frederick Weichel proved he was innocent of a 1980 slaying in Braintree and ordered the state to pay him $33 million in compensation for the nearly 36 years he spent in prison.

By state law, the award will be capped at $1 million, though a judge will rule on whether Weichel is entitled to additional money for lawyers’ fees and other costs. Weichel also has a separate civil lawsuit pending in federal court for his wrongful conviction for the murder of 25-year-old Robert LaMonica.

The jury of four men and six women deliberated for just over two hours before reaching its verdict, after 11 days of testimony — some of it focusing on whether notorious South Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger worked behind the scenes to protect LaMonica’s true killer while Weichel was falsely accused.

Jurors were asked to decide three specific questions: Did Weichel prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was innocent of LaMonica’s murder; that he was not an accessory after the fact; and that he was not engaged in witness intimidation related to the slaying. The jurors ruled in favor of Weichel on all questions.

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“I feel great and I can finally hear people say Fred Weichel is innocent, completely innocent by a jury,” Weichel, now 70, of South Boston, said as he stood in the hallway outside the courtroom with his lawyers after the verdict was announced. “It’s good to feel the truth, it’s taken a long time.”

Weichel’s attorney, Mark Loevy-Reyes, said the state’s attorneys “relied on a lot of innuendo” during the trial “to try to make Fred look bad.”

“The jury didn’t buy it,” Weichel said. “I was just framed. It’s that simple.”

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Weichel was convicted of fist-degree murder in 1981 and sentenced to life without parole, but a judge overturned his conviction and set him free five years ago, ruling that investigators had failed to turn over evidence that may have helped him prove his innocence.

Under state law, former prisoners who were wrongfully convicted can sue for compensation of up to $1 million, but they must prove they are innocent of the crime, or any other felony related to it. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office contested Weichel’s claim, leading to the jury trial.

Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Healey, said in a statement that the verdict “is a result of our state statute that appropriately allows for eligible plaintiffs to bring their case before a jury for a final determination. We will continue to handle these cases in a way that is fair and consistent with the law.”

LaMonica, a South Boston native who worked at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, was gunned down outside the Braintree apartment he shared with his girlfriend at about 12:20 a.m. on May 31, 1980.

Taking the stand at trial, Weichel testified that he was sitting in Triple O’s, a South Boston bar, when LaMonica was killed. And Bulger’s former associate, Kevin J. Weeks, corroborated that account, testifying that he was working as a bouncer at the bar when Weichel came in around 12:15 or 12:20 a.m.

Weichel was linked to the crime by eyewitness identification from one person — a teenager, who was drinking beer with several friends in a park across the street and saw a suspect from 175 feet away, in the dark, running from the scene to a waiting car. He helped police create a composite sketch of the suspect, picked Weichel’s mugshot from a photo array, and later identified Weichel on a street corner while driving around South Boston in a van with two state troopers and LaMonica’s two brothers.

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That witness, like many others who testified at Weichel’s 1981 murder trial, is deceased. Transcripts of the original trial testimony were read to jurors at the civil trial.

Weichel’s lawyers called experts who testified that the teenager was too far away to have been able to identify the suspect’s features. The experts said the procedures followed by police were flawed. In addition, the state trooper assigned to the case initially lied before a grand jury, claiming that four witnesses had identified Weichel, according to testimony.

Judge Catherine Ham, who presided over the trial, told jurors to carefully consider evidence related to the eyewitness identification of Weichel, noting that “research and experience has shown that people sometimes make mistakes in identification. The mind doesn’t work like a video recorder.”

During closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Kate Isley urged jurors to deny Weichel any compensation, arguing that even if he was innocent of LaMonica’s murder he helped a friend avoid prosecution for it.

She argued that Weichel knew his friend, Thomas Barrett, was involved in LaMonica’s slaying and arranged for him to stay with a friend in California to evade authorities — making Weichel an accessory after the fact.

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But, Weichel testified during the trial that he didn’t know who killed LaMonica and was terrified when Bulger showed up outside his apartment after the slaying and threatened to kill him or his family if he mentioned Barrett’s name to anyone.

His voice cracking with emotion, Weichel told jurors Bulger said “he was going to cut my head off and kick it down the street like a head of lettuce. He told me not to mention Tommy Barrett’s name ever.”

Bulger, who was serving a life sentence for 11 murders, was beaten to death by fellow inmates at a federal penitentiary in West Virginia in 2018.

During his closing remarks, Loevy-Reyes told jurors that authorities never made any effort to prosecute Barrett, who was never charged and “is still walking around South Boston.”

He argued that the state has “come up with some flip flop story” after claiming for 42 years that Weichel was the killer.

The state “won’t admit it was wrong for taking half of Fred’s life,”Loevy-Reyes said.

Weichel, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in South Boston, was 28 when he went to prison and said he lost years of his life, emerging as an old man.

“I just am so happy to be free and to have have this behind me,” Weichel said after the verdict. “And have some money in my pocket and buy people breakfast instead of them buying me breakfast.”

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Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.