O'Laughlin may get freed again
By Jack Dew, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Saturday, January 24
Michael O'Laughlin has been convicted, freed and convicted again for beating a Lee woman nearly to death in 2000. Now, he is hoping to be freed again.
O'Laughlin, formerly of Lee, was convicted in 2002 of beating Annmarie Kotowski with a baseball bat in her apartment. That verdict was overturned by a state appeals court in 2005, which found there was insufficient evidence to support a guilty finding, but then reinstated in 2006 by the Supreme Judicial Court. He is serving a 35- to 50-year sentence in state prison.
O'Laughlin's case has now been taken up by the New England Innocence Project, a nonprofit that seeks to free innocent convicts, largely through retesting biological evidence like blood and hair. And he has filed a separate appeal seeking to overturn the Supreme Judicial Court's decision with a federal court, which heard oral arguments in September and could issue a ruling any day.
Alison Douglass, a Boston attorney with Goodwin Procter and the New England Innocence Project, said the group is still reviewing the case to determine all possible sources of biological material. The next step will be to seek tests on that evidence.
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said he expects the guilty verdict will be upheld in the federal appeal. Meanwhile, his office is in discussions with the New England Innocence Project.
"I don't expect there will be any difficulty (testing or retesting evidence)," Capeless said. "It really is just a matter of working out the details. There is certainly nothing about this or any other case that we would want to hide."
Kotowski's cause has also been taken up by a small group of supporters, who have rallied around a Web site dedicated to his case, www.freemichaelnow.com.
"There was no proof whatsoever, no evidence to substantiate that he was even at the crime scene," said Dick Blanchard, a volunteer who designed the Web site. "There was blood all over (the crime scene) yet there was nothing on him — no fingerprints, handprints, fibers, DNA — nothing. It is just remarkable."
At O'Laughlin's trial, the prosecution acknowledged that its case was built on circumstantial evidence.
Kotowski was attacked in her home at the Fox Hollow apartment complex where O'Laughlin worked and had a master key. He was using crack cocaine that night and had called several dealers for more, but had run out of money.
Capeless argued that O'Laughlin went into Kotowski's apartment to steal money but woke Kotowski, whom he then beat severely with a baseball bat and left.
The attack broke every bone in Kotowski's jaw and face and left her unable to remember that night. Her face and hands were rebuilt in a dozen operations over 18 months, but she was left with permanent nerve damage, little feeling in the left side of her face, and her hearing and eyesight were impaired. Kotowski, who was 49 at the time of the attack, was unable to return to her job as a schoolteacher.
Authorities found a baseball bat in nearby woods that had blood — and O'Laughlin's name — on it. Tests on the blood, however, were inconclusive.
The defense argued that Kotowski's estranged husband, David, had an even stronger motive to kill Kotowski.
The two were childhood sweethearts and had been married for 30 years when, in 1999, David learned his wife was having an affair, the defense said. The couple separated two months before the attack and, five days before the assault, Annmarie began discussing divorce.
Defense attorney Nathaniel Green argued that David had ready access to a baseball bat — indeed, he had once aspired to be a professional baseball player and had a large collection of baseball equipment.
When officers searched the husband's car, they found towels matching those in his wife's apartment, in a plastic bag in the trunk, reeking of bleach. The police, however, had treated the husband as a suspect but cleared him.
O'Laughlin maintained his innocence after the guilty verdict. At his sentencing, he spoke directly to Kotowski, saying, "I did not do this to you, and I do not know who did this to you. ... Someday it will come out and it will be clear who did this."
To reach Jack Dew: firstname.lastname@example.org (413) 496-6241
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