On the eve of trial, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office offered to settle a civil lawsuit that Frederick Weichel brought seeking compensation for the 36 years he spent in prison for a wrongful murder conviction. The state would pay Weichel $200,000 to settle that claim as well as his federal lawsuit against two state troopers who helped send him to prison.
The offer, just a fraction of what Weichel would be eligible for under law, was “absolutely insulting,” said Weichel’s attorney Mark Loevy-Reyes.
Now, the state will have to pay substantially more, after a Suffolk Superior Court jury last month found that 70-year-old Weichel was innocent of the 1980 slaying of Robert LaMonica in Braintree and ordered the state to pay him $33 million in damages. By state law, the award will be capped at $1 million, though the trial judge may order the state to pay Weichel’s legal fees.
In a recent interview, Loevy-Reyes said the state should have offered Weichel $1 million to settle the case in 2017, when a judge overturned his first-degree murder conviction and set him free.
“To make him wait five years for the compensation, in some ways it feels almost inhumane,” said Loevy-Reyes, adding that Weichel, of South Boston, has been struggling to live on about $850 a month in Supplemental Security benefits.
Healey’s settlement offer to Weichel illustrates the pivotal role her office plays in reviewing cases of people who seek compensation after erroneous convictions. If suits aren’t settled, or dismissed by the court, former prisoners must prove at trial that they are innocent of the crime, or any other felony related to it, by “clear and convincing evidence.”
Since the state’s wrongful conviction compensation law went into effect in 2004, only three of nine lawsuits that went to trial — including Weichel’s — resulted in verdicts awarding compensation for the former prisoners.
Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Healey’s office, declined to comment on Weichel’s case but said the state does not plan to appeal. After a judge overturned Weichel’s conviction, ruling that investigators failed to turn over evidence implicating another suspect, prosecutors chose not to retry him but insisted he had not been exonerated.
Healey’s office tries to settle cases where the innocence of the person is clear, according to Fennimore.
“Every erroneous conviction case is unique and needs to be evaluated on an individual basis,” Fennimore said. “We handle these cases consistent with the law and agree with the Legislature that eligible plaintiffs should have the opportunity to receive compensation.”
The law initially allowed awards of up to $500,000, but that cap was increased in 2018 to a maximum of $1 million, plus attorneys’ fees. As of September, 109 people have sued the state, resulting in payments totaling $21.1 million to 46 people, according to state figures. All but two of the cases that resulted in payouts by the state were settled before trial, with payments ranging from $9,300 to $1 million. Fourteen cases are pending, and the rest have been dismissed.
A review of the cases found that some were dismissed because prisoners weren’t eligible to collect compensation under the law, which says a prisoner’s erroneous conviction must have been overturned by a state court “on grounds which tend to establish the innocence” of that person.
Boston attorney Leonard Kesten, who represented a man who spent three years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of arson for a Fall River fire in 2009, said the state has to weigh whether a person “got off on a technicality” or is actually innocent before offering taxpayer money to settle the case.
Kesten’s client, Paul Marcucci, was acquitted of arson at a second criminal trial and the state paid him $350,000 last year to settle his suit seeking compensation.
“Is it a fair system? I think so,” said Kesten, adding that people “used to get nothing” for the years they spent in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Attorney Howard Friedman, who also represented Weichel during the civil trial, pointed to a case where a man agreed to accept an $800,000 settlement from the state for his wrongful conviction because he needed the money immediately and didn’t want to wait for a trial.
“In some ways the Commonwealth is acting like an insurance company, thinking, ‘How can we save money?’ ” Friedman said. “I think they should be thinking, ‘Is this just? Is it just to settle a case for $950,000 instead of $1 million?’ ”
Testifying at his civil trial, Weichel said he was sitting in a South Boston bar when 25-year-old LaMonica was gunned down outside his apartment shortly after midnight on May 31, 1980. Within days, he told jurors, notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger threatened to kill him and his family if he implicated another man.
The sole eyewitness linking Weichel to LaMonica’s slaying was a teenager who was drinking beer at a park across the street and claimed to have seen the face of a fleeing suspect from 175 feet away.
Two experts testified that the teenager was too far away to have been able to identify the suspect’s face.
It took jurors two hours to reach a verdict.
“The happiest moment was when they said there’s clear and convincing evidence that Fred is innocent,” Weichel said. “That was like a shot in the arm, like this guy is really innocent. Let’s give him something.”