Judge, citing doubts in case, orders new trial for Weichel
Twenty-three years after he was convicted of murdering a Braintree man in an ambush, Frederick Weichel has won a new trial because of newly discovered evidence and allegations that the case was tainted by James "Whitey" Bulger and the fugitive mobster's associates.
Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein ruled Monday that a letter received by Weichel's mother seven months after a Norfolk County jury convicted Weichel in 1981 and comments made by the letter's purported author raise doubts about his conviction.
In the letter and statements, Weichel's one-time friend, Thomas Barrett, said that he, not Weichel, shot and killed Robert LaMonica near the victim's apartment building shortly after midnight May 19, 1980. Borenstein accepted the letter and comments as credible, but prosecutors dispute them. In a brief court appearance last year, Barrett refused to admit he wrote the letter, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"Both Barrett's written and oral confessions cast real doubt on the justice of Weichel's conviction, especially since the conviction was not based on overwhelming evidence of guilt," the judge wrote in a decision received yesterday by Weichel's lawyers. "Since Weichel did not have the opportunity to present this exculpatory evidence to the jury, he is entitled to that opportunity now."
Weichel's lawyers applauded the 24-page ruling yesterday and planned to ask the judge as soon as possible to release him from MCI-Shirley. Borenstein has not scheduled a new trial. "We are thrilled," said attorney Jeffrey A. Denner. "What happened to Fred Weichel is unspeakable and part of a larger conspiracy that the Bulger group and the FBI were involved in."
The Norfolk district attorney's office, which prosecuted Weichel, issued a statement saying that the ruling contained "significant errors of fact and law" and that prosecutors intended to appeal to the state Supreme Judicial Court.
Prosecutors believe "the judge was plainly wrong" to accept Barrett's purported confessions as "sufficiently corroborated," the statement said.
Weichel's late mother, Gloria Weichel, received a letter in March 1982. In the letter, Barrett said he killed LaMonica and that he was sorry that Weichel was wrongly imprisoned for the murder, Weichel's lawyers contended in a hearing last year.
At the hearing, Weichel's lawyers presented evidence that the letter did not surface for years because Weichel and his mother feared reprisals from Bulger. Weichel testified that Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi approached him four times before his arrest for the murder and once afterward, when he was free awaiting trial, and threatened to harm him or his family if he ever mentioned Barrett's name.
A witness also testified that Gloria Weichel, who died in 2001, told her sister that after she received the letter, two men whom she did not know came to her door and asked her for it. She refused to turn it over, but later entrusted it to a lawyer.
"In this case, the effects of Bulger's threats, the undisputed and widely known reputation earned by Whitey Bulger, reasonably and readily prevented Weichel from learning about and making use of the exculpatory evidence contained in Barrett's letter," Borenstein wrote in his ruling. "Bulger's iron grip on the South Boston community in the 1970s and 1980s is without doubt."
The other newly discovered evidence concerns comments Barrett supposedly made about committing the murder to a mutual friend of Weichel's, Sherri Robb, a social worker from California. Robb testified last year that Barrett told her many times that he "wanted to kill himself because someone was taking the rap for something that he did."
Robb said she eventually realized he was referring to Weichel.