Court orders new trial for man in prison for 1986 Cambridge stomping murder

A man who has been in prison for more than 25 years for a brutal East Cambridge murder deserves a new trial because DNA evidence not available at his original trial shows none of the victim's blood on the purple jacket he allegedly wore while stomping him and then dumping his body behind an abandoned supermarket in 1986, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled today.

The court's decision upholds a similar ruling by a Superior Court judge two years ago that Michael J. Sullivan deserves a new trial because of the DNA evidence. Sullivan was convicted of beating and kicking Wilfred McGrath in the apartment of one of Sullivan's pals, leaving a room with walls and floors covered in the victim's blood; he claims he was not there.

The SJC upheld the conviction in 1991, but said the new evidence cast enough doubt on the prosecution's case to warrant a new trial:

We acknowledge, as did the motion judge, that much of the evidence the Commonwealth presented against the defendant remains, and that the Commonwealth may have been able to carry its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed murder in the first degree even without the evidence of the purple jacket. However, our inquiry is not whether the verdict may have been different, but whether the evidence in question probably served as a real factor in the jury's deliberations. ...

In light of this, we cannot ignore the fact that but for the purple jacket, the jury would not have been presented with any physical evidence connecting the defendant's person to the crime scene or the victim's blood. Without the purple jacket, the defendant could have argued at closing that not one piece of physical evidence linked the defendant directly to the killing of the victim. Combined with the testimony of defense witnesses, this fact may have been sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. At the very least, the evidence was probably a real factor in the jury's deliberations because it was one of the pieces of physical evidence that the prosecution pointed to more than once in closing as a basis on which to credit Grace's testimony over that of Petrla [Grace was also accused of the murder, but turned state's evidence].

Therefore, we conclude that the motion judge did not abuse her discretion in ruling that physical evidence arising from the purple jacket served as a "real factor" in the jury's deliberations such that the new test results cast real doubt on the justice of the defendant's conviction. The judgment granting the defendant's motion for a new trial is affirmed.

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