In 1976, Larry Watkins of Louisville, KY was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of a man who'd given him and his girlfriend a ride in Roxbury. After unsuccessful appeals over the years, a Superior Court judge ordered a new trial. But the state's highest court today overturned that, in a decision which likely means Watkins will now die in prison.
According to court documents, Watkins, then 24, and his Louisville girlfriend, Theresa Nelson, 21, were up in Boston visiting his brother Theodore, in his Roxbury apartment in November, 1975. On Nov. 17, they went for a walk - after having had too much "marihuana" to smoke and alcohol to drink, Larry Watkins would testify. They hailed what they thought was a cab, except it wasn't, but the driver of the green Buick, Edward Keen, stopped anyway and let them in. Not long after, Watkins pointed a gun at him, Nelson grabbed his wallet and Watkins ordered him into the trunk. They then picked up Theodore and, after driving around for about an hour stopped in Newton, opened the trunk. Theodore shot Keen in the back of the head, instantly killing him.
Newton Police found Keen's body the next day, as Larry Watkins and Nelson drove the Buick back to Louisville. Massachusetts State Police put out an APB for the car and Louisville Police, already looking for Watkins and Nelson in connection with a series of armed robberies, found them and the car not long after. Theodore, meanwhile, fled to Ohio, where he was also soon arrested.
Both brothers and Nelson were brought back to Massachusetts and went on trial for first-degree murder, armed robbery and kidnapping. in 1976, Nelson was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping, but acquitted for murder and sentenced to 3 to 5 years in Framingham state prison. Both brothers were convicted of first-degree murder - Larry on the legal "joint venture felony murder" theory, that he was as guilty of the murder as his brother even though he had not actually fired the bullet that killed Keen.
Several appeals in both state and federal court resulted in his sentence being upheld.
Watkins tried again in 2018, and this time a judge in Middlesex Superior Court agreed he deserved a new trial, after Watkins argued the prosecutor in the case had failed to provide sufficient evidence to find him guilty on the "felony murder" theory, based on an argument Watkins made that the judge concluded had not been raised before.
In particular, Larry Watkins said the two crimes that day - the armed robbery and the murder - were completely separate crimes, rather than a joint venture. Yes, Theodore murdered Keen, but he did not know that Larry had earlier robbed Keen at gunpoint. So if the murder did not come about because of the armed robbery, then Larry could not be convicted of being part of the murder, because he took no part in planning the murder or knowing that it would happen as a result of the earlier robbery, that he was, at best, an accessory to the crime, which does not carry a life sentence.
But in its ruling today - on an appeal of the judge's ruling by the Middlesex County District Attorney's office - the state's highest court concluded that judge was in error, that, in fact, the issue of the joint-venture nature of the murder had been litigated before, which had been noted in 2003 when a single SJC justice denied an appeal by Watkins in 2003 and wrote:
The jury could have readily found that the robbery had not concluded until the victim was killed and his body disposed. In these circumstances, they were warranted in finding that [the defendant] was a joint venturer in the felony murder even if [Theodore] actually killed the victim and the killing took place after [the defendant] had incapacitated the victim pending a decision about what should be done to assure a trouble-free getaway.
So the SJC turned to another legal standard, that of "estoppel," in which judges are not supposed to let somebody re-litigate something that's already been litigated, and concluded that Watkins was not really raising a new point and so there was nothing in his verdict to overturn.
The court today actually issued two rulings today on the case: As the DA was appealing part of the ruling, Watkins, now approaching 70, was appealing another part that denied him freedom as he got ready for a new trial. The court said that its ruling on the DA's appeal made that issue moot.