BROCKTON — Defense experts relied on new science Monday in an effort to cast doubt on the decades-old murder conviction of a South Boston man who says he didn’t do it and has provided letters from James “Whitey” Bulger supporting his claim.
Frederick Weichel, now a gray-haired 65-year-old, was found guilty in 1981 of fatally shooting Robert LaMonica, 25, outside the victim’s Braintree apartment shortly after midnight on May 31, 1980.
Yellowed police records, faded composite sketches, and a witness’s identification of Weichel as the shooter from some 180 feet away were the focus of hearings that began Monday in Superior Court to determine whether he was denied a fair trial.
Judge Raymond P. Veary Jr. ordered the proceedings after ruling two years ago that Weichel’s lawyers raised serious questions about whether a newly discovered police report should have been turned over by prosecutors during the 1981 trial.
The report, found in Weichel’s file, implicated another suspect.
Norfolk County prosecutors, who opposed Weichel’s motion for a new trial, have argued that the report appeared to be an unrelated document that was mistakenly placed in Weichel’s file, contained in a black binder at the Braintree Police Department.
Veary said in court Monday that the provenance of the report remained of “vital concern” and he plans to “look at every piece of information or evidence I can with respect to that black binder.”
LaMonica’s two brothers quietly watched the proceedings and declined to comment afterward. Their elderly mother, who was not present, has previously said she believes Weichel killed her son, who worked for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
While the hearings are unlikely to focus on Bulger, the notorious South Boston gangster — who is now serving a life sentence for participating in 11 murders — has repeatedly been cited by Weichel in court filings.
In a series of letters sent from jail in 2013, Bulger wrote that a young, unnamed boxer who was Weichel’s “pal” confided to him in 1980 that he was scared because he had badly beaten a man in a street fight and the victim’s friend, LaMonica, was vowing revenge.
“He wanted my advice,” wrote Bulger. “ ‘What would I do?’ I told him, get him first, kill him.”
The letters were filed with the court two years ago in support of the motion to overturn Weichel’s conviction by his attorney, Michael D. Ricciuti, who is representing Weichel for free with assistance from the New England Innocence Project.
However, Bulger would not sign an affidavit or testify on Weichel’s behalf.
The focus Monday was on the police report and a witness’s identification of Weichel.
A teenager who heard the shots when LaMonica was killed and saw a man jump into a waiting car helped police create a composite sketch of the suspect. He picked Weichel’s mugshot from a photo array as “a pretty good likeness.” Later, while driving around South Boston with police and LaMonica’s two brothers, the teen identified Weichel on a street.
Geoffrey Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who has studied perception and memory, testified that even if the teenager had 20-20 vision he would have seen a “blurred image” of the suspect from 180 feet away in the dark.
Loftus challenged the teenager’s assertion that he could tell the shooter had curly sideburns, slightly bushy eyebrows, and a slightly crooked nose.
Two other defense experts cast doubts on the prosecution’s theory that the police report was mistakenly placed in Weichel’s file and not related to LaMonica’s slaying.
The June 9, 1980, typewritten report, signed by then Braintree Police Detective James F. Leahy, indicated that someone told him the composite sketch was Rocco Balliro.
The report indicated that correctional officers told police the sketch looked like Balliro, who had been released from prison on a furlough the day before LaMonica’s slaying. Balliro died in 2012. Leahy is suffering from a medical condition and will not testify.
Prosecutors said the report appeared to refer to an unrelated composite sketch of a man wanted in another case. Leahy’s report and the LaMonica suspect were separated by many pages when discovered in the binder after Weichel’s defense filed a records’ request.
However, Alan Robillard, a document examiner and retired FBI agent, testified that distinct markings left by tape and the holes punched to put the documents in the binder, indicated that it was “highly probable” that the police report and the composite sketch of LaMonica’s alleged killer were together in the binder at one time.
Another expert, Paul Messier, an art conservator and head of the Lens Media Lab at Yale University, testified that after examining the police report and composite sketch with ultraviolet fluorescent light, he concluded they were probably “one on top of the other.”
Messier said he couldn’t determine for how long the two pages had been together, or when they were moved, but concluded, “The page sequence was altered at some point.”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.