A 23-year-old Dorchester man with a lengthy criminal history was charged Friday with first-degree murder in an unusual prosecution that links his alleged firing at several people to the death of a man who fled unscathed but succumbed to an asthma attack triggered by the incident.
“The facts are novel, but the legal reasoning is not, as evidence suggests the defendant set in motion all of the factors causing Mr. Rowell’s death,’’ said Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office, moments after Michael Stallings was arraigned in Suffolk Superior Court and ordered held without bail pending a Feb. 19 hearing.
Stallings pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, armed assault with intent to murder, and possession of a firearm as he hid in a hallway leading into the courtroom while Clerk Magistrate Gary Wilson read the list.
The mother of the victim, Kelvin Rowell , broke into tears after the proceedings and was consoled by at least a half-dozen supporters. Friends and relatives of Stallings also attended. None would comment to a reporter.
Julie Higgins, assistant Suffolk district attorney, said the case is based on witness testimony, surveillance videos, and a global positioning system monitor Stallings was wearing as a condition of his release on $750 cash bail in a previous assault and battery case out of Roxbury District Court.
On Jan. 23, 2012, Rowell was standing with two men on Blue Hill Avenue near Supple Street when Stallings allegedly drove by at 8 p.m., and made eye contact with a 19-year-old Roxbury man in the group. The two recognized each other as members of rival gangs, but Rowell was not a gang member and had no part in their feud, authorities said.
A short time later Stallings returned on foot and “proceeded to fire at Kelvin Rowell and the friends he was standing with,” Higgins said. Rowell and his friends fled.
Rowell, 40, of Dorchester, ran down Blue Hill Avenue and turned onto Pasadena Street.
“His friend that was running with him heard Mr. Rowell saying that he was having a difficult time breathing,” Higgins said. “It was apparent from his friend that Kelvin Rowell was definitely having a hard time breathing. He was struggling even with running. He collapsed as he turned around the corner on Pasadena Street and lapsed into a coma.”
Rowell was carrying an inhaler in his pocket, but the attack was too strong. An ambulance rushed him to Boston Medical Center, but he never recovered and died six weeks later. Medical examiners ruled the death a homicide on July 24, 2012, finding the cause to be “complications of status asthmaticus after fleeing gunshots fired at him.”
A Suffolk County grand jury returned an indictment against Stallings last month.
Wark referred to two cases supporting the murder charge.
A 1997 Supreme Judicial Court decision, Commonwealth v. Felix Santiago, held the defendant liable for murder despite the lack of clear evidence that he fired the fatal shot that killed an innocent bystander during a shootout between two groups of youths.
A 1980 decision by the court, Commonwealth vs. Rhoades, holds that a defendant can be prosecuted for murder if the defendant’s acts set off a sequence of events that produced death, when the death would not otherwise have occurred.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley applied such cases recently in a much-
publicized 2007 murder trial in which gunfire from a shootout in front of a house on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester struck and killed Chiara Levin, who was sitting in a vehicle parked nearby.
The man who fired the fatal shot, Casimiro Barros, was sentenced to up to 30 years for voluntary manslaughter, but the man who sparked the shoot-out, Manuel Andrade, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors said Andrade was responsible for Levin’s death, even though it was Barros who fired the fatal shot.
“The fact that someone suffers a serious asthma attack and falls into a coma is a little more unforeseeable and isolated than someone getting struck by a bullet,” Stephen Weymouth, the lawyer representing Stallings, said in a telephone interview several hours after the arraignment.
Weymouth said he intends to seek the assistance of a forensic pathologist to evaluate whether any other factors could have triggered Rowell’s fatal asthma attack.
Higgins said Stallings has 10 convictions for drug, firearms, and other offenses and is serving a 30-month jail sentence for violating probation.
He also has numerous defaults on his record and was committed to the Department of Youth Services as a juvenile for a drug offense, she said.