(BOSTON): In 1981, 30 year old Fred Weichel was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Robert LaMonica, 25, in Braintree in 1980. Weichel is now 66; he has spent the past 36 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Superior Court Judge Raymond P. Veary has today allowed a new trial for Weichel, citing the critical importance of never before disclosed evidence pointing to an alternate perpetrator. Weichel is represented by Michael D. Ricciuti of K&L Gates and the New England Innocence Project.
BACKGROUND: Robert LaMonica, 25, was fatally shot outside of his Braintree apartment shortly after midnight on May 31st, 1980. A teenage witness claimed to have seen the shooter – a man – jump into a waiting car and drive away from the scene of the murder. Despite having just drunk a 6-pack of beer, 180 feet away from the shooting, in darkness, the witness helped police create a composite sketch and later, while driving around South Boston with police and LaMonica’s 2 brothers, identified Fred Weichel on the street as the perpetrator. From the beginning, Weichel has maintained his innocence, arguing, with alibi witnesses to back him up, that he was in a bar in Boston at the time of the murder.
A key issue at the hearing was the so-called Leahy Report, which was compiled on June 9, 1980, and signed by then Braintree Police Detective James F. Leahy. The report indicated that multiple correctional officers had informed Leahy that the composite sketch of the alleged perpetrator resembled not Weichel but Rocco Balliro, a man who had pled guilty to murdering his girlfriend and her 2 year old son and was serving out his life sentence at MCI Bridgewater. Balliro had been released from Bridgewater on a furlough the day before LaMonica’s murder. The report was not known to the defense until Weichel’s attorneys requested his entire file from Braintree Police in 2010. Balliro died in prison in 2012. Further complicating matters, in 1982, Fred Weichel’s mother, Gloria, received a letter from Tommy Barrett, an acquaintance from South Boston. In the letter, he confessed to having committed the murder of LaMonica. When asked about the letter during hearings for a new trial for Weichel several years ago, Barrett invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Fred has been fighting for justice for 36 years. It goes without saying that we are all completely thrilled with the Court's decision," said New England Innocence Project Executive Director Denise McWilliams. "Mike Ricciuti and his colleagues from K&L Gates did a tremendous job, and the New England Innocence Project is proud to have been a part of this team. However, it remains deeply troubling that Fred has spent 36 years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Simply put, we need to do better."
Had these alternate perpetrator theories been known at the time of trial, the already shaky eyewitness identification would likely have undergone greater scrutiny. Eyewitness misidentification is a contributing factor in more than 71% of nation’s DNA exonerations. Geoffrey Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who studies perception and memory, testified on Weichel’s behalf that even if the teenage eyewitness had 20-20 vision he would have seen a “blurred image” of the suspect, not the detailed account he provided to police. The witness asserted that he could tell the shooter had curly sideburns, bushy eyebrows, and a slightly crooked nose.
“The science indicates that faces are unrecognizable at even 134 feet away,” says New England Innocence Project Staff Attorney Radha Natarajan. "An eyewitness who had been drinking and was standing 180 feet away, in the dark, would not be a reliable witness in court today, especially since there is no other evidence implicating Fred as the perpetrator.”
“Had Weichel’s original defense team had access to the Leahy Report, they could have used it to cast doubt on the prosecution's case, which was otherwise totally dependent on the testimony from an inebriated witness who claimed to have seen Weichel running away,” said New England Innocence Project Executive Director Denise McWilliams. "We’re thrilled with the decision today. Fred is innocent and he deserves his day in court.”