Despite a defense attorney’s withering efforts to portray her as a liar, Rachelle Bond steadfastly maintained over five grueling days on the witness stand that her former boyfriend killed her daughter, Bella, and dumped the child’s body in Boston Harbor.
But without any physical evidence to corroborate her account, Bond’s testimony in the ongoing trial of her former boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, may not be enough to convict him, legal observers said.
Both Bond and McCarthy were heroin users, and his lawyer has argued that she killed Bella and blamed McCarthy for the murder.
Given the clashing accusations and tortured backgrounds of the two main actors in the case, prosecutors may have a hard time persuading jurors that Bond is the one telling the truth, said Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk Law School professor.
Even if jurors believe her, that may not be enough to persuade them that prosecutors have proven McCarthy’s guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt,” the legal standard needed to convict him of first-degree murder, Cavallaro said.
“You have two equally plausible scenarios, and two deeply troubled people, and one is going to accuse the other, and the bar is set appropriately high for conviction,” Cavallaro said. “I would be surprised if there was a guilty verdict.”
Several observers pointed out that Bond’s credibility could be undermined by some of the shifting accounts she has offered on the stand and by the fact that she has acknowledged that she helped to dispose of Bella’s body and then collected the girl’s welfare benefits after her death.
“Juries have a hard time convicting on someone’s word, especially someone who is involved in some way,” said Melinda L. Thompson, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. “Of course, a young child died, which is just awful, and there’s no doubt that someone killed her, so you would also think the jury would want someone to answer for that.”
Bond has pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of murder and to larceny, and is testifying against McCarthy under a plea agreement with prosecutors, who have agreed to recommend that she be sentenced to two years of probation.
Bond has testified that, in May or June of 2015, she watched through a crack in her daughter’s bedroom door as McCarthy punched Bella so forcefully in the stomach that he killed her.
Cavallaro said the case brings to mind the April trial of former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, who was found not guilty of killing two men in a drive-by shooting in Boston in 2012.
That trial also rested on the testimony of a troubled witness, Alexander Bradley, a former friend of Hernandez’s who was testifying under a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Bradley was a drug dealer who was being jailed for a shooting in Connecticut, and Hernandez’ lawyer blamed him for the double murder in Boston.
“That made it very difficult for jurors to say I’m satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt, so they had to turn away,” Cavallaro said.
But legal observers pointed out that jurors in McCarthy’s case will likely feel a strong emotional pull to hold someone accountable for the brutal death of a 2-year-old girl who loved to play in the park, eat homemade pizza, and watch the show “Blue’s Clues.”
“The word unpunished hangs out there,” Cavallaro said. “We don’t want this death to go unpunished and that’s a huge responsibility for jurors. That’s an enormous weight that may play a role.”
John Amabile, a defense lawyer not involved in the case, said Bond’s credibility may be hurt by the fact she struck an agreement with prosecutors that spares her a prison sentence, beyond the time she is currently serving in the Suffolk House of Correction. Jurors were told that she made the plea agreement.
“If it’s true that the case is going to turn on the testimony of the mother, then I think the government is in trouble because that’s a witness that has made a deal, that has incentive to fabricate and is getting rewarded for testifying,” he said.
Amabile said jurors may also be troubled by the fact that Bond did not tell police that her daughter had been killed until they arrested her in September 2015, several months after Bella’s body had washed ashore on Deer Island.
“The fact that really jumps off the page here is she doesn’t come forward with this information until she’s arrested for this crime, and in that context, a jury would find it very hard to accept her testimony,” he said.
The trial, which began May 30 in Suffolk Superior Court, is expected to continue Friday with testimony from the state medical examiner and from Bella’s father, Joseph Amoroso.
Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, pointed out that Bond has testified that she feared McCarthy would kill her if she told police about Bella’s death. That argument may carry weight with jurors in an era of increasing public awareness of the way women can be trapped in abusive relationships, he said.
“Although she has been offered limited immunity and she’s not a very sympathetic character herself, I think the jurors could still view her as a victim of a controlling abuser and someone who was legitimately terrified to come forward to authorities about the death of her daughter,” Healy said.
McCarthy’s defense attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, sought to undermine Bond’s credibility on the witness stand by forcing her to admit that she never saw McCarthy dump Bella’s body in the harbor and that she wrote journal entries that lovingly described McCarthy as her “husband” after she claims he killed her daughter.
But Healy said Bond did not buckle under Shapiro’s tough questioning.
“On balance, the jurors may say, she’s being punished, she’s come forward, she’s worked with the prosecution, and it’s difficult for her to endure this heated cross examination from the defense,” Healy said. “But she seems to be withstanding that and sticking with her story about why she did what she did.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.