DEDHAM — There were no cellphones when Frederick Weichel was sentenced to life in prison. The Internet did not exist. And Ronald Reagan was president.
On Thursday, the South Boston man got his first taste of freedom in 36 years when a judge ordered him released on $5,000 bail, weeks after his 1981 murder conviction was overturned because investigators failed to turn over a report that implicated another suspect.
“I’m free,” Weichel, now 65, said as he hugged and thanked friends on the courtroom steps. They erupted in applause when Superior Court Judge Gregg Pasquale set bail, rejecting a request by prosecutors to keep Weichel behind bars while they appeal the April 10 decision granting him a new trial.
The Norfolk District Attorney’s office notified the court Thursday morning that it will ask a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to reinstate Weichel’s conviction for the murder of 25-year-old Robert LaMonica, who was gunned down outside his Braintree apartment shortly after midnight on May 31, 1980.
But for now, Weichel is savoring his long-fought-for freedom. Two close friends, who have stuck by him for decades, said they planned to celebrate quietly at a restaurant of Weichel’s choosing.
“The only thing I was thinking of is having a steak,” said Weichel, who hasn’t had one since he was imprisoned at age 28. “I’m going to enjoy life.”
In the ruling earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Raymond P. Veary Jr. wrote that the case against Weichel rested on tenuous eyewitness identification. A teenager, who had consumed four or five beers, heard gunshots and briefly saw a fleeing suspect from 180 feet away.
He helped police compile a composite sketch of the suspect and later identified Weichel as the shooter.
The judge found that Weichel may have been acquitted if authorities had shared a police report with the defense before trial that indicated 10 prison guards believed the composite sketch resembled an inmate who was on a furlough around the time of LaMonica’s slaying.
The report didn’t surface until 2010, after Michael D. Ricciuti, a partner in the Boston law firm K&L Gates, began representing Weichel, along with the New England Innocence Project, and filed a public records request with the Braintree Police Department.
Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Michael McGee told the judge Thursday that prosecutors remain convinced that Weichel killed LaMonica and argued that he should remain in custody until a higher court decides his fate.
“To suggest he isn’t a danger to society is outrageous,” said McGee, arguing that it was Weichel who shot LaMonica in the back of the head when the victim arrived home after working the night shift for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
Attorney Christopher Nasson, who represents Weichel, argued that Weichel has maintained his innocence for several decades and stood before the court as an innocent man since his conviction has been overturned.
“Any more time in jail would simply be unjust,” Nasson argued. “This man has lost more than 36 years of his life for a crime that he didn’t commit.”
Even notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger had weighed in on Weichel’s case. In letters from prison that Weichel’s defense team filed in support of their motion to overturn their client’s conviction, Bulger wrote that he knew Weichel didn’t kill LaMonica.
Bulger wrote that an unnamed boxer who was Weichel’s “pal” was the killer. However, when asked to file an affidavit or testify on Weichel’s behalf, Bulger refused, noting that he’d never even testified at his own trial in 2013.
On Thursday, the judge agreed to release Weichel under the condition that he live with a friend, wear a GPS bracelet around his ankle to monitor his whereabouts, and abide by a curfew, which requires him to be home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. A longtime friend quickly posted bail.
As he waited to be fitted with the electronic bracelet, Weichel acknowledged that he’s never used a cellphone, or a computer, and that he knows that his hometown of South Boston has been dramatically transformed since he last walked its streets.
So, what’s it like to be a free man for the first time in 36 years?
“Think of the best feeling you’ve ever had in your life and multiply it by 10,” Weichel said.Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.