Litchfield County Times

In the Peter Reilly Case, Odd New Developments
By: Kathryn Boughton 01/30/2004
In a move that state Freedom of Information Commission hearing officer Victor Perpetua likened to a scene from "Alice in Wonderland," State Police argued last week that they could not release files associated with the infamous Peter Reilly murder case from the 1970s because those files have been "erased."

At the same time, police reserved the right to argue in the future that the files cannot be released because the case remains open for investigation. No one has ever been convicted for the homicide in Falls Village of Mr. Reilly's mother, Barbara Gibbons.

"At one point you said, [the investigation] was pending; as I understood your testimony, it still is pending, which raises a logical inconsistency-how can it be pending if there are no records on which to investigate it? Sounds like 'Alice in Wonderland,'" Mr. Perpetua said to Dawn Hellier, a legal advisor for the state Department of Public Safety who testified at the hearing.

The hearing was held Jan. 22 in Hartford to determine the accessibility of case files sought by Kent journalist and author Donald Connery and the Lakeville Journal. Mr. Connery and the newspaper filed separate requests to peruse the files of the 31-year-old murder mystery and were denied access.

Mr. Connery, who wrote a book about the case, "Guilty Until Proved Innocent," said that his renewed focus on the case resulted from the efforts by retired State Police Capt. Thomas McDonnell to write a new "blockbuster" book that would "prove" beyond doubt the guilt of Peter Reilly.

Ms. Gibbons, 51, was found brutally murdered Sept. 28, 1973, when her son returned from Canaan, where he had attended a meeting of a church youth group. Mr. Reilly, then 18, made frantic calls for emergency assistance, but soon found himself the focus of the police investigation. After more than 24 hours of interrogation, conducted without legal counsel, he confessed to the murder-a confession that was quickly recanted.

There was a flood of public support for the orphaned youth, but Mr. Reilly was nevertheless tried and convicted of the murder. He was later exonerated when the public prosecutor in the case died of a heart attack and exculpatory evidence that had never been revealed was found in his files. The evidence, based on reliable eyewitness account, placed Mr. Reilly more than five miles from the scene at the time the police said the murder had been committed.

Two years later, calling the conviction a "grave injustice," Judge John A. Speziale-the same judge who had sentenced the young man to between six and 16 years in prison-overturned the conviction. A year after that, Judge Maurice Sponzo dismissed all charges against Mr. Reilly "with prejudice."

The State Police have continued to assert, however, that they arrested the right suspect and a number of officers have gone on record in remaining convinced of Mr. Reilly's guilt.

"This is a case that is still unsolved and it is important to understand how it went so long, Mr. Connery said this week in a telephone interview. "When we requested the file, we got back a response that the files could not be accessed because the case is still pending-that's so ridiculous because nothing has been done in 25 years. We filed an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission in September, but they couldn't schedule a hearing until January.

"The second reason we were given [for denial] is that files don't exist," Mr. Connery continued. "When I saw that, it didn't make any legal sense. At the hearing, that was the basis of the state's response. It was like a mantra; they said it a dozen times. They wouldn't even admit whether the files had been erased or destroyed. It was sort of left in the air that the records had physically not been destroyed, but erased."

Under Connecticut state statute, the part of a case file that refers to a suspect who is later exonerated can be "erased." The erasure is not supposed to apply to an entire case file, however, according to Mr. Connery.

"They couldn't even talk about erasure," said Mr. Connery, who taped and made his own transcript of the hearing. "Someone who has been wrongly convicted will have the records of a supposed crime removed, taking out of public sight anything that has to do with the accusation. Our response is that we are not going after records relating to Peter Reilly-we're after the Barbara Gibbons murder case. Are they saying there are no records of the whole case?"

Mr. Connery and Alan Neigher, a Westport attorney representing the writer and the Lakeville Journal pro bono, feel that allowing the police to hide behind the erasure statute establishes a dangerous precedent.

"If they are allowed to get away with this, any police agency that has made a big mistake and named a person and he is exonerated ... then the police can wipe out the whole case record with result that perpetrators get a free pass," said Mr. Connery.

"It is breathtaking in its sweep because it would say, in effect, that unsolved murders when someone is exonerated-found not guilty or had their conviction reversed-then all the records are swept from public view," said Mr. Neigher during the hearing last week. "And that is a dangerous precedent because mistakes in law enforcement, misconduct by law enforcement, are thereby hidden from public view."

Ms. Hellier and Assistant Attorney General Stephen R. Sarnoski, who represented the Department of Public Safety, declined to admit whether there are any public documents to be made available. However, Mr. Sarnoski argued that because no public records exist, the FOI commission lacks jurisdiction.

Mr. Perpetua, the hearing officer, was not impressed. You're asking me to conclude [whether I have jurisdiction] based on your fairly bald assertion that no records exist. I think that counsel is entitled to inquire, and is not required to accept, that assertion. It may be true or may not be true. .... I can't just say, well, you said the records don't exist, everyone go home, case dismissed."

Mr. Connery said that the hearing ended in "kind of a standoff." The hearing officer said the attorneys have until Feb. 22 to file briefs expanding upon their arguments. Mr. Sarnoski insisted that the only way to "unerase" a file is to seek redress through the superior court.

"It seems to me inevitable that this will go to a higher court," said Mr. Connery.

He also questioned when the files were erased. "We will look for a decision about when they were erased," he said. "Was it only after our request for access? We had not a word that anything was happening."

He said Mr. Reilly is currently living with the Madow family, formerly of East Canaan and now residing in Tolland. The Madow family unofficially adopted him after his mother's murder. He works in a music store and plays guitar in a band.

"The delicious part is that the band is named Voodoo Justice," Mr. Connery reported. "He's fine, just a wonderfully decent person who is taking care of [the widowed Mrs. Madow] and driving his 'brother,' Art [Madow], to therapy [following a truck accident]. He's never even had a traffic ticket in all these years."

He said that Mr. Reilly is eager to see the case pursued, noting that in a 2001 "American Justice" segment on the A&E television channel, two state prosecutors echoed the continuing claim of the State Police that Reilly is guilty.

"They were only expressing what the State Police have said for 25 years-that they were satisfied with results of their investigation. That is so bothersome to Peter and to me that anyone should be subjected to this cloud of suspicion. He just wants them to find out who killed his mother."

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