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SJC refuses to grant new trial for man convicted in 1986 slaying of 79-year-old man in Middleborough trailer

The state’s high court Tuesday refused to grant a new trial for a man convicted of participating in the 1986 murder of an elderly man found beaten and strangled with a pillowcase inside the trailer where he lived in Middleborough.

Michael J. Eagles, who said he was under the influence of drugs during the slaying in a 1989 Boston Globe Magazine story, had argued that Plymouth County prosecutors relied too heavily on now-discredited science during the trial that led to his conviction for first-degree murder.

The victim, Lewis Jennings, 79, was found clutching five strands of human hair and a State Police official testified that two of those strands “were consistent” with Eagles’ hair.


But Eagles’ current lawyer argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that forensic experts have since concluded the hair analysis used during the trial is no longer considered valid.

In the unanimous ruling, Justice Elspeth B. Cypher wrote that Eagles’ lawyer was correct, that presenting hair evidence was a mistake because research has shown it was not as reliable as once believed.

The question the court then had to answer, Cypher wrote, was whether the flawed science played a key role in the jury’s decision to convict Eagles of a crime that carries an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The SJC said it did not.

“Contrary to the defendant’s argument, the hair found in the victim’s hand at the scene of the crime was not the only piece of physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime,” Cypher wrote.

Jennings was killed on July 30, 1986, and the cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries and strangulation by ligature, according to the SJC.

Eagles has claimed he was only a lookout as an acquaintance attacked Jennings, but Cypher said there was other forensic evidence that linked Eagles to the murder. (The acquaintance, Jeffrey Roberio, was tried separately and convicted of first-degree murder.)


“I commend the SJC on their thoughtful decision to keep Michael Eagles in prison,” Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said in a statement on Tuesday. “This was a particularly heinous and senseless murder, and my thoughts are with the Jennings family today.”

The SJC said a bloody footprint on a pillowcase found on the living room floor matched Eagles’ left sneaker, that blood found on his pants matched the victim’s blood type, and blood was found on his shirt and sneakers after the crime.

“The hair evidence merely was cumulative of the other significant physical evidence that demonstrated the defendant’s involvement in the armed robbery and murder of the victim,” Cypher wrote.

The evidence was also sufficient to convict Eagles under the legal theory of joint venture.

“The defendant’s failure to render aid to the victim, telephone 911, or disassociate himself from Roberio and the joint venture in some other way also supports the jury’s rational inference that the defendant possessed the requisite intent for armed robbery and felony-murder,” Cypher wrote.

Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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