The state’s highest court on Tuesday for the second time threw out the first-degree murder conviction of a onetime aspiring prizefighter who admitted to fatally stabbing a romantic rival in 2010 in New Bedford.
The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in the case against Jonathan Niemic, now 31, means prosecutors can either accept a verdict reduction to manslaughter in the slaying of 34-year-old Michael Correia or try Niemic for a third time on a first-degree murder count, records show.
Niemic admitted to stabbing Correia on the evening of Oct. 20, 2010, outside a New Bedford soup kitchen but claimed self-defense, records show. The two had been romantically involved with the same woman at different points prior to the altercation.
“The victim was stabbed five times; any one of the wounds could have been fatal,” Justice Barbara A. Lenk wrote in Tuesday’s 49-page ruling. “The defendant testified at trial that he had stabbed the victim. . . The theory of defense was that the older, taller, and heavier victim initiated a fist fight, and then pulled out a knife; the defendant managed to wrench the knife from the victim and swung wildly to fend off the victim.”
Lenk said Niemic’s conviction for first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence without parole, must be vacated owing to the prosecutor’s improper statements during closing arguments in the second trial.
Lenk did not name the prosecutor.
Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III’s spokesman said via e-mail that prosecutors are “reviewing the court ruling and will make a decision at a later date.”
The SJC faulted the lead prosecutor in the second trial for trying to inflame the jury during closing arguments.
“At the defendant’s second trial, the prosecutor began and ended his closing with the same attempt to tug at the jury’s heart strings,” Lenk wrote. “Indeed, he framed his argument with equally improper plays to juror sympathy in virtually the same language that he had used at the first trial, including the victim’s last words to his father — ‘Dad, don’t let me die, don’t let me die,’ with which the prosecutor once again ended his closing.”
Lenk noted that the SJC previously tossed Niemic’s murder conviction after the first trial, and that the same prosecutor’s comments during closings the first time around “had been a focus of the court’s discussion of the improprieties” in the prior SJC ruling.
Jurors aren’t permitted to base verdicts on sympathy for victims and their families but must instead judge cases on the strength of the evidence.
Niemic’s lawyer during the second trial, Lenk wrote, objected to the prosecutor’s reference to Correia’s father, and the prosecutor countered that “dying in front of your father to me is more conscious suffering than dying out in the woods alone. I mean, I would feel worse if I’m dying in front of my father. And so it goes to the issue of conscious suffering of the victim.”
Conscious suffering is frequently cited in murder cases to show extreme atrocity or cruelty, one of the theories of first-degree murder that jurors convicted Niemic on during his second trial.
Lenk also wrote Tuesday that the prosecutor in the second trial “used facts [during closings] not in evidence or misstated facts and improperly stated his own opinion on multiple occasions.”
Lenk also noted that Correia “ran into the soup kitchen” after being stabbed and Niemic “chased him into the building. About twenty seconds later, the defendant ran out of the building” and got into an SUV that drove away.
In addition, Lenk said Niemic told a friend a few days before the stabbing that he would punch Correia the next time he saw him. Niemic, Lenk wrote, “was interested in becoming a professional fighter, and for ‘a couple of’ months had been working out at a gym, training on punching the heavy bag.’ ”
Niemic is currently incarcerated at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, records show.