The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for two men convicted of a Chelsea murder, ruling that newly discovered DNA evidence casts doubt on the justice of the convictions. The names of the cases are Commonwealth v. Cowels and Commonwealth v. Mims.
In 1993, the defendants met up with the victim at a house party in Chelsea. One of the defendants sold marijuana to the victim and they all continued to socialize. Later the same night, the victim was stabbed to death and left behind an industrial building. The police centered their investigation on the defendants, and quickly built a case against them based primarily on information provided by a man named Robert Salie. Salie was friends with both of the defendants. He testified at trial that the defendants and the victim appeared at his apartment on the evening of the murder. According to Salie, both of the defendants had sex with the victim and they all left together. A couple of hours later, the defendants came back without the victim. They immediately went into Salie’s bathroom and ran the water in the sink for 20 minutes. One of the defendants then exited the bathroom in his underwear, holding his clothes in a plastic bag. He borrowed clothes from Salie and allegedly said he had killed the victim.
Police officers later searched Salie’s bathroom and found two bloody towels. At the time, DNA technology could confirm the presence of human blood but could not detect its source. A DNA expert told the jury that the blood could have come from anybody. Both of the defendants were convicted of first-degree murder.
Years after the trial, a new DNA test was able to determine that neither of the defendants’ blood was contained on the bloody towels. The victim’s blood also was not present. The defendants filed motions for a new trial, alleging this “newly discovered” evidence cast doubt on their convictions. The trial judge denied their motions and the defendants appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The SJC concluded that the trial testimony concerning the bloody towels was likely a “real factor” in the deliberations of the jury. The Court pointed out that the case against the defendants was circumstantial and largely driven by Salie. The problem with relying on Salie was that he had huge credibility problems. The Commonwealth admitted that he was a “junkie” with a long criminal record. At trial, it was revealed that he had at least 19 criminal convictions on his record. He initially told the police a story that corroborated the defendants and only changed his story when the police threatened to charge him with being an accessory after the fact. Salie was also able to avoid a jail sentence for unrelated motor vehicle crimes by cooperating with the police and the prosecutors. Therefore, based on Salie’s enormous credibility problems, the jury had likely given great weight to the limited physical evidence, including the bloody towels. Had they known that the towels did not contain either of the defendants’ blood or the victim’s blood, they may have very well reached a different verdict.
DNA evidence is incredibly powerful and its role in correcting prior unjust convictions is compelling, as this case illustrates.