Thirty-six years after a South Boston man was sentenced to life in prison for a 1980 murder, a judge on Monday ordered a new trial because investigators failed to turn over a report that implicated another suspect.
The outcome of Frederick Weichel’s 1981 trial for the slaying of 25-year-old Robert LaMonica would probably have been different if authorities had shared the police report with the defense before trial, the judge ruled.
LaMonica, who worked at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, was gunned down outside his Braintree apartment shortly after midnight on May 31, 1980.
In a 45-page decision, Superior Court Judge Raymond P. Veary Jr. wrote that the case rested on the tenuous identification of Weichel by a teenager, who briefly saw the gunman from 180 feet away. He helped police compile a composite sketch of the suspect and later identified Weichel as the shooter.
The June 1980 report by Braintree Police Detective James F. Leahy indicated that a source told him the composite, which ran in a local newspaper, looked like Rocco Balliro, a state prison inmate on a weekend furlough at the time of the slaying. Leahy wrote that he later interviewed 10 correction officers who agreed the sketch resembled Balliro.
The police report would have allowed Weichel’s defense to suggest that someone else killed LaMonica and would have made a pivotal difference in his lawyer’s attempt to introduce expert testimony challenging the reliability of the eyewitness identification, Veary ruled. Police focused on Weichel as a suspect within days of the slaying.
David Traub, a spokesman for the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office, declined to comment on whether prosecutors will appeal the ruling.
“We are disappointed, but we are reviewing the case and have no further immediate comment,” Traub said.
Steve Grossman, Weichel’s longtime friend and supporter, said he spoke to Weichel, who is being held at the state prison in Norfolk. Weichel said he was thankful for all the people who have helped him and was excited by the ruling. Grossman said Weichel told him “it feels great,” and “I’m looking forward to my future.”
The victory for Weichel, 65, comes on his third appeal of his conviction. In 2004, a judge granted him a new trial on the basis of a 1982 letter that another man wrote to Weichel’s mother, confessing to killing LaMonica. Two years later, the state Supreme Judicial Court reinstated Weichel’s conviction, ruling the letter didn’t qualify as new evidence.
The police report that prompted Veary to overturn Weichel’s conviction surfaced in 2010, after Michael D. Ricciuti, a partner in the Boston law firm K&L Gates, began representing Weichel for free, with assistance from the New England Innocence Project. They filed a public records request with the Braintree Police Department, which found the Leahy report in an old binder.
“Had Weichel’s original defense team had access to the Leahy report, they could have used it to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case, which was otherwise totally dependent on the testimony from an inebriated witness who claimed to have seen Weichel running away,” Denise McWilliams, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, said in a statement. “Fred is innocent, and he deserves his day in court.”
Sydney Hanlon, who prosecuted Weichel in 1981 as a Norfolk assistant district attorney and is now a state appeals court judge, testified last summer during hearings on Weichel’s motion for a new trial that she had never seen the Leahy report and would have turned it over to the defense if she had.
While crediting Hanlon for testifying candidly about the significance of the report, Veary was critical of John Sprague, a retired State Police trooper who handled the investigation. He noted in his opinion that Sprague misled a grand jury in 1980 by suggesting that four teenagers had identified Weichel as the shooter, when only one eyewitness had.
Sprague testified last summer that he had never seen the Leahy report until it surfaced several years ago and never received any information about Balliro being a potential suspect.
Notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger wrote letters from jail several years ago claiming that he knew Weichel did not kill LaMonica. The letters were filed by Weichel’s defense team in support of their motion to overturn his conviction.
In the letters, Bulger wrote that an 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,” Bulger wrote. “ ‘What would I do?’ I told him: ‘Get him first. Kill him.’ ”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.