BROCKTON — More than 30 years into a life sentence for conviction on two counts of murder, John M. Feroli was back in court Tuesday to face the charges anew, with a startling second chance at exoneration, and freedom.
Feroli, 63, who unsuccessfully challenged his conviction decades ago, won a new trial last February when a judge ruled he had been denied his constitutional right to a public trial. In 1986, Feroli’s sister and mother were temporarily barred from the courtroom while the jury that would send Feroli away was being empaneled.
Feroli was found guilty of being the lookout while two men were shot dead in a Plymouth beach cottage, the culmination of a mindless feud that had escalated from a broken windshield and a fistfight. That conviction was overturned.
His sister, Donna Feroli-Karo, was in Brockton Superior Court Tuesday, among a large, emotional group of family members who had come to Feroli’s hearing for bail to free him while he awaits a new trial.
During the hearing, Superior Court Judge Angel Kelley Brown asked Feroli’s family to stand briefly, so she could get a sense of them.
With her brother almost close enough to touch, and closer to freedom than he had been for decades, Feroli-Karo could not help but speak up for him.
“Your honor,” she said across the courtroom, on the edge of tears. “We’re all ready to take him, to keep him in our homes.”
Brown did not immediately rule on Feroli’s bail request. The new trial is scheduled to begin July 9.
Feroli is charged with participating in the murders of William O’Connor and Thomas Sylvester, who were killed on Oct. 8, 1984. Prosecutors said Tuesday that the issues that led to the overturned conviction had nothing to do with the evidence the state presented three decades ago.
Feroli, dressed in a pink collared shirt and gray sweater, turned often to smile and nod at his family.
Feroli’s conviction was vacated last February by Superior Court Judge Thomas F. McGuire Jr., who ruled that Feroli’s rights were violated when the courtroom was closed to the public during jury selection, even after Feroli’s lawyer objected.
“The defendant was denied his right to a public trial guaranteed to him by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments,” McGuire wrote in his decision. “The error requires a new trial.”
If he is prosecuted again, it would be the third time Feroli has been tried for the murders. His first trial, in 1985 with two codefendants, ended when the jury could not reach a verdict. After the mistrial, Feroli was retried without the codefendants, in proceedings that began in June 1986.
McGuire found evidence that Feroli’s mother and sister had been seated in the courtroom before jury selection began. The trial judge, Augustus Wagner, “ordered the court officers to remove spectators from the courtroom during empanelment,” McGuire wrote. “At the time, closing the courtroom to the public during empanelment was a common practice.”
Feroli’s lawyer at the time, Kevin Reddington, now a well-known criminal defense lawyer, objected to the removal of Feroli’s family, because he knew Feroli’s first trial had been “exceptionally contentious” and Feroli’s mother was upset about being asked to leave, according to McGuire. Once the jury was seated, the family was allowed in the courtroom.
In his decision, McGuire wrote that spectators may only be barred from a criminal trial in limited circumstances, and only after a judge makes specific findings to justify exclusion.
“Since the judge at the defendant’s trial did not make the necessary findings, the defendant had a constitutional right to have the public, including his family members, present during jury empanelment,” McGuire wrote. “The judge’s order to close the courtroom violated that right.”
Feroli was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life behind bars. He was 31.
Neither Wagner nor Reddington could be reached for comment.
Feroli’s codefendants, Herbert Andrews and Thomas Cormier, were retried together in November 1985, and convicted. Andrews is incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, according to inmate records.
Feroli’s current lawyer, John P. Hebb, told the judge Tuesday that Andrews is willing to testify that Feroli was not complicit in the murder plot.
Cormier died in prison in 1996, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction.
Feroli filed an initial appeal shortly after his conviction, raising questions about the judge’s instructions to the jury, remarks made by the prosecutor, and evidence presented at trial about Feroli’s past criminal record.
The Supreme Judicial Court rejected his arguments and affirmed his conviction. His initial appeal did not raise the closing of the courtroom.
The three defendants unsuccessfully challenged their convictions in the 1990s, arguing that prosecutors should have disclosed at trial that the state had paid about $45,000 in expenses for two witnesses in the case, including Carol Sylvester, the chief witness against Feroli. Prosecutors said at the time that the payments were routine for witnesses in protective custody.
On Tuesday, prosecutors argued against bail for Feroli, noting that he ran from police and gave a fake name when he was caught in 1984.
Hebb said Feroli is neither dangerous nor a flight risk — he has no money and believes that he will be exonerated at trial.
The victims in the case, O’Connor and Thomas Sylvester, were shot dead in the home of Carol Sylvester, the key witness against Feroli.
She was Thomas Sylvester’s stepmother, the Globe reported in 1992.
The bad blood between the killers and the victims appeared to stem from damage Andrews had done to O’Connor’s car, which led to Sylvester punching out Andrews, according to court records.
Andrews and Cormier decided to kill the victims, and, according to prosecutors, forced Carol Sylvester to lure the men to her home by saying she could arrange a marijuana sale.
O’Connor and Thomas Sylvester failed to show, so the murders were postponed a day. In the meantime, Andrews and Cormier decided they needed a third person to pull off the plot, and recruited Feroli, according to a summary of Carol Sylvester’s testimony in court papers.
Feroli denies participating in the planning of the murders and insists he fled the house before the murders occurred, Hebb said in court.
Carol Sylvester lives in Florida, according to court documents. Hebb said he does not believe she was truthful at trial, and has already filed a motion to compel her to be at Feroli’s retrial, so she may be cross-examined.Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.