Metro

After 36 years, murder convict in Somerville slaying continues fight for exoneration

James Rodwell poseD for a portrait inside the visiting area at Massachusetts Correctional Institute Concord. Rodwell is fighting a life sentence for murder, he's been in prison for more than 30 years and is making one last grasp at getting a new trial.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
James Rodwell posed for a portrait inside the visiting area at MCI-Concord. He has been in prison for more than 30 years and is making one last attempt at getting a new trial.

Almost everyone agrees that James Rodwell might not have been convicted of murder nearly 40 years ago if not for the testimony of a key witness and career criminal named David Nagle.

At the time, Rodwell’s lawyer tried to bar Nagle from the stand, accusing him of being a longtime drug informant. But the judge said there was no proof and allowed Nagle to provide his account of the murder, of how — he said — Rodwell strode up to Louis J. Rose Jr.’s car and shot him seven times in the face.

Now 61, Rodwell continues to maintain his innocence, and new evidence has emerged to bolster his case for another trial, a decision which lies with a justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Rodwell’s lawyers point out that the Drug Enforcement Administration paid Nagle dozens of times before the 1981 trial for informing on others and that the authorities may have pressured Nagle to testify against Rodwell to win a conviction.

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Rodwell’s case has drawn the support of a number of prominent lawyers, who say prosecutors not only withheld exculpatory evidence at trial but continued to do so for years to come.

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“There is a stench about this case,” said Jack Cunha, a veteran criminal defense attorney who has consulted on Rodwell’s appeals. “Which emanates from the government, over the course of decades, not being forthcoming about Nagle and his connections to law enforcement.”

There was no physical evidence tying Rodwell to the killing of Rose, a drug dealer who was shot in Somerville in 1978. Instead, prosecutors relied heavily on the word of Nagle, who, evidence now shows, had a history of supplying information to investigators in exchange for leniency for his own offenses.

But the jury was never told Nagle had worked as a police informant. A few months after his arrest, Rodwell was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The case is now before Justice Scott L. Kafker, who will decide whether the new evidence uncovered by Rodwell’s lawyers should be presented to the full bench. A previous justice denied his appeal last year, after a Superior Court judge rejected a bid for a new trial.

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The Middlesex district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case because it remains under appeal. In court filings, prosecutors said they were unaware of Nagle’s former role as an informant at the time of the trial and that Nagle was never offered any deals for his testimony against Rodwell.

David Siegel, who prosecuted the case in 1981 and is now retired, declined to comment on the allegations raised by Rodwell’s attorneys. But he expressed confidence that justice was done.

“There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that James Rodwell participated in this crime and that he was the leader,” Siegel said.

Rodwell has filed seven unsuccessful motions for a new trial, but judges have consistently ruled there was not enough new evidence that Nagle lied about Rodwell on the stand or that prosecutors withheld Nagle’s full background.

But lawyers for Rodwell say the accumulated evidence clearly indicates that Rodwell did not receive a fair trial.

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“That is one of the problems Rodwell has had,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense attorney who has consulted on the case. “Every time he is back in court, some judge is considering some little corner of this without looking at the full picture.”

Rodwell has also drawn support from a surprising corner. Nagle’s half-brother, retired Westwood Police Chief William Chase, said he is convinced Nagle lied on the stand.

“I look at the evidence in this case and it’s remarkable to me that he was convicted in the first place,” Chase said. “I’m surprised and disappointed, frankly, in the district attorney’s office that they haven’t taken a more objective look at this case.”

In an interview at MCI-Concord, Rodwell recalled the night he was arrested. It was a warm May night, and he was working security outside the Deja Vu nightclub in Lynn when police officers approached him.

“You’re under arrest for murder,” they said, placing him inside a cruiser.

“This is a mistake,” Rodwell said he recalled thinking.

Rodwell missed his father’s funeral, and seethes with frustration that he cannot help his mother, who recently suffered a stroke. Still, he said he tries to remain hopeful.

“It’s agony,” he said. “But you have to have faith.”

Conflicting evidence

On Dec. 4, 1978, Rose was found dead in the front seat of his Buick on Garfield Avenue. Rose, the son of a Burlington police captain, was 21.

For three years, police had no idea who was behind his murder. But in April 1981, they caught a break. Francis X. Holmes Jr., a 23-year-old who had gone to high school with Rose, was arrested for violating his parole for armed robbery. He was sent to the Billerica House of Correction, where Nagle was also being held on armed robbery charges.

From jail, Holmes reached out to police and gave the lead detective on the case, State Trooper Thomas Spartachino, his account of Rose’s killing.

Late on Dec. 3, Holmes, Rodwell and another man made plans to rob Rose, and drove to Somerville. They parked on Garfield Avenue, where Rodwell strode over to Rose’s Buick and shot him, Holmes said. He then took Rose’s rifle and $5,000 worth of Percodan pills from the car.

On May 22, police arrested Rodwell, a 25-year-old railroad worker and bouncer with a criminal record for assault and larceny. He was sent to Billerica to await trial, where he met Nagle. Nagle would later testify that Rodwell had bragged, to him and other inmates, about killing Rose.

Even with the testimony of Holmes and Nagle, the case against Rodwell had holes. Prosecutors had no fingerprints tying Rodwell to the murder, and no other witness placed him at the scene. The murder weapon, a .22-caliber firearm, was never recovered.

Before trial, prosecutors offered Rodwell a seven- to 10-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. Rodwell said he never considered it.

“Why would I take a deal for something I didn’t do?” Rodwell said.

Rodwell had no alibi, saying he could not remember the night in question. He was probably at work, he told authorities, or spending time with his fiancee or his parents.

At trial, Rodwell’s lawyers portrayed Holmes and Nagle as jailhouse informants who had agreed to implicate Rodwell so they could have their sentences reduced. Holmes was also motivated by revenge, Rodwell believes. In 1978, Rodwell had beaten him up after accusing Holmes of stealing.

But prosecutors had other evidence. Holmes said he and Rodwell drove to meet Rose in a blue Gran Torino Rodwell had rented. Police found a rental agreement that showed Rodwell had rented a blue Torino on Dec. 1 and returned it on Dec. 5. There were discrepancies about the car, however. Rodwell rented a four-door model, and police initially described the car seen on the night of the murder as a two-door.

Rodwell’s lawyer, William Cintolo, argued that Nagle should not be allowed to testify, saying police had recruited him to extract a confession from Rodwell. That made Nagle a government agent and his testimony inadmissible.

The judge said there was no proof that Nagle was an informant or that he had cooperated with law enforcement before. He refused to let Cintolo question Nagle about being an informant.

On the stand, Nagle said he was a Marine sergeant who had left the service with honors. In fact, he had been dishonorably discharged after going AWOL.

The jury took less than a day to find Rodwell guilty.

Since the conviction, Rodwell’s lawyers have focused on Nagle’s testimony, noting that he received an unusually light sentence for the robbery. They have said that Spartachino, the lead detective on the case who has since died, intervened several times on Nagle’s behalf, sometimes asking judges directly for leniency and in one case bullying a prosecutor to go easier on Nagle.

Retired Superior Court Judge Robert A. Barton, who did not review the case, said that jurors are generally suspicious of police informants. But judges may be reluctant to look deeply at a case that has already been reviewed many times, he said.

“It’s human nature. You get something that’s 25 years old, five or six judges have already rejected it, and the guy has nothing better to do but keep appealing,” Barton said. “You think this is a waste of time.”

In 2015, Superior Court Judge Thomas Billings agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing on whether Rodwell should receive a new trial. The proceedings eventually lasted several months and involved 26 witnesses, including Siegel, the original prosecutor.

“I still think David Nagle told the truth,” Siegel testified.

Rodwell’s current lawyer, Veronica White, presented a host of evidence she gathered from new witnesses and documents that were unearthed after Nagle, who died in 2012 of liver failure, waived his attorney-client privilege in the case:

 Two of Nagle’s lawyers testified that in the years after the trial Nagle had told them that investigators threatened to implicate Nagle’s fiancee in Rose’s murder if he did not testify.

 Chase testified that he confronted his brother about the trial in 1991 and told him he believed he was lying. Nagle did not deny it, he said.

 In a 1982 letter to Suffolk prosecutors that asked for leniency in one of Nagle’s cases, Spartachino described how Nagle had begun cooperating with authorities in June 1981. At trial, Nagle said they met in July. White argued that the letter proved he had recruited Nagle to approach Rodwell and solicit information, violating Rodwell’s constitutional rights.

 Prosecutors lost the case file and waited years to tell the defense about it.

In a 115-page ruling, Billings said none of these new issues warranted a new trial.

The date in Spartachino’s letter was a “slip of the pen,” Billings wrote. The loss of the case file, while “unfortunate,” was unlikely to contain any evidence of corruption.

White said she will continue to press on with the case.

“I will keep fighting for Jimmy for the rest of my life,” she said.

Just before Christmas, Rodwell’s sister, Kimberly, visited him at MCI-Concord with their mother’s nurse. They drank coffee and ate some cookies before attending Catholic Mass in the prison visiting room.

“I just have to suck it up and pray,” Rodwell said.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.