Metro

Springfield group rallies for convicted murderer

NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Vira Cage, a member of Justice for Charles, spoke in support of Charles Wilhite, convicted in the killing of Alberto Rodriguez, in Springfield. At right stood Wilhite’s mother, Sheila Drungo, with her hands clasped over her face.

NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Wilhite’s mother wore a pin in his support at the rally.

SPRINGFIELD - Marialyn, 20, knows that many people didn’t expect her at a rally for Charles Wilhite, a man convicted of murder in December 2010.

The woman’s uncle, Alberto Rodriguez, was the victim - but her family does not believe Wilhite is guilty. So on Saturday Marialyn joined about 50 others who believe that Wilhite, 29, was wrongly convicted in the October 2008 killing for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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Some members of the rally at Gerrish Park in Springfield’s Six Corners neighborhood said they think Wilhite, who is black, was convicted because of his race.

And though Marialyn, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear for her safety, did not go that far, she said she did not want to see an innocent man go to prison, even though “we still feel the pain.’’

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The group’s confidence in Wilhite’s innocence centers on Nathan Perez, a key witness in the trial who is now recanting his testimony identifying Wilhite as the shooter. In a Hampden Superior Court hearing last month, Perez first said that a Springfield detective had pressured him to testify against Wilhite. Then, in the same hearing, he said that an assistant district attorney had also pressured him to give the testimony.

Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis is expected to hand down a decision Monday on whether Perez’s original testimony should stand.

“It’s a crime for the Commonwealth to stand in opposition to the innocence of Charles Wilhite,’’ said Vira Cage, his aunt, and a member of Justice for Charles, the group that sponsored the rally. “This is not justice for Alberto’s family. This is not justice for Charles Wilhite. This is not justice for Springfield.’’

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Wilhite’s uncle, Edward Cage, said the family is confident that the judge will find Wilhite innocent.

“We’re not here to beat up on anyone - not the police, not the community, not anyone,’’ Cage said. “We’re here to make sure that something happens.’’

He said Wilhite’s case has made him question the state’s criminal justice system, and has made him fear that he, or anyone else, could be falsely accused of a crime. “It was the opposite of what it was supposed to be: Charles was assumed guilty and needed to be proven innocent,’’ Edward Cage said. “He wasn’t given a fair chance.

Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni, who was appointed to office after Wilhite’s conviction, said Saturday that his office has followed protocol since Perez’s testimony was called into question. He said he cannot throw out a guilty ruling without a hearing before a judge.

NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

A niece of Rodriguez wore a T-shirt in Wilhite’s defense. A key witness in the trial has recanted his testimony identifying Wilhite as the gunman.I

“This is absolutely not a case where there is any stonewalling to prevent justice,’’ he said. “We encourage these activists to bring forward their concerns. Let’s have a hearing, let’s follow the rules, let’s put the witness on the stand and see what the real story is.’’

Mastroianni said accusations that the jury’s conviction was based on racism were “quite frankly offensive.’’

“There’s absolutely no one who is interested in an unjust conviction,’’ Mastroianni said.

Wilhite’s girlfriend, Victoria Hazel, 28, who visits him in prison every other week, said she has had to shield her 5-year-old daughter from the truth about where the girl’s father has gone.

“She thinks he’s at work,’’ Hazel said.

Wilhite’s mother, Sheila Drungo, said she is hopeful for a positive outcome - but she is steeling herself in case the conviction is upheld.

“It’s been very hard, very stressful for us,’’ Drungo said. “I’m just hoping for the best.’’

Some at the rally said that Wilhite’s arrest has helped shine a light on other injustices in the state’s criminal justice system - concerns that have been strengthened by the attention devoted to the case of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed in February in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.

Michaelann Bewsee, cofounder of the activist organization Arise for Social Justice, said she is glad Wilhite’s case has been used as a medium for larger conversations about social inequality.

“To the family and friends of Charles Wilhite,’’ Bewsee said, “you have taken a moment of great anguish and pain for your brother Charles, and you have made it a gift for the community that has brought us together.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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