The Supreme Judicial Court today rejected a request by a man convicted of a 1974 Roxbury murder that he be freed because of Covid-19 concerns while he purses an attempt to win a new trial, as well as requests for release by two men convicted of a 1984 murder in Dorchester.
In the case of a Back May man who has lost numerous appeals of his conviction for murdering his girlfriend in Winthrop in 1976, the court rejected arguments by state prison officials that he had missed the deadline to file his latest appeal. That ruling came in the form of an answer to a judge in federal court in Boston who is hearing his latest appeal, who was seeking clarification of state law on the particular legal question.
Ronnie Harris, convicted on second-degree murder charges for killing Mack Clark during a robbery at Washington and Northampton streets on March 22, 1974, had asked to be released from prison while he pursued a new trial. Harris was 19 at the time of his conviction in 1975.
In his appeal of an appeals-court judge's denial of his request, he cited his age and medical condition as underlying conditions that would put him at risk of death should he contract Covid-19 while locked up.
In its ruling today, the state's highest court had two basic things to say: It agreed with the lower-court judge that Harris had failed to provide "one appellate issue of sufficient heft that would give an appellate court pause" and that the court's Covid-19 rulings, which encourage compassionate release where possible, do not apply here because Harris is not appealing his conviction, but rather the denial of his motion for a new trial.
It sounds like a subtle difference, but the Supreme Judicial Court in fact upheld his conviction more than 40 years ago - it reviews all first-degree murder convictions - and that while the law allows for exceptional reasons for the court to change its initial review, that gets back to its first point, that Harris failed to provide any exceptional proof to warrant a possible new trial.
The court continued that Covid-19 by itself is not any sort of exceptional circumstance to warrant release for a conviction that happened decades before, except for drug convictions that hinged on evidence certified by convicted state chemist Annie Dookhan. To rule otherwise would
Invite every prisoner in the Commonwealth, regardless of the nature of his or her conviction or the amount of time that has passed since then, to file a motion for a new trial and, if it is denied,seek a stay of execution of sentence (that is, immediate release from confinement) pending appeal from that decision.
In a separate ruling, the court used similar logic to reject a request for a new trial for Floyd Hamilton, convicted with Joseph Jabir Pope for using a shotgun to murder Efrain DeJesus in a drug robbery on Nonquit Street on May 23, 1984 (a third man who was also a a suspect was himself shot to death in New York not long after). Pope was also a party to the appeal, but the court declared his request moot because a Superior Court judge had already denied his request for a new trial.
Finally today, the court said that Rae Herman Mandeville had not waited too long to file the latest of numerous appeals of his conviction for murdering his girlfriend, Emily Kincaid, in her Winthrop apartment on Feb. 14, 1976, by shooting her in the head and neck and of attempted murder for shooting a friend of hers in the head, which she survived. Mandeville was 26 at the time of his sentencing the following year.
The ruling does not immediately affect Mandeville's current residence at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater; it was to answer a question from a federal judge considering his latest appeal there. His federal suit is technically against the prison warden; who had said that the particular appeal was filed after the time allowed in a previous SJC ruling and should be dismissed; the SJC said, no, that ruling didn't apply here.