The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week upheld a superior court judge’s decision to grant a new trail to a man who was convicted of starting a fire in 1982 that killed eight occupants of a Lowell apartment building. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rosario.
The fatal fire started on the first floor of an apartment building in March of 1982 and witnesses reported hearing the sound of breaking glass. It took firefighters about an hour to control the fire, and a subsequent search of the building revealed the bodies of eight victims. An arson unit responded to the scene and examined the burn patterns in the building. The fire investigators concluded, based on the burn patterns, that the fire was intentionally set and may have been started by an incendiary device such as a Molotov cocktail. The defendant was in the area when the fire started. A neighbor said the defendant had used drugs at her apartment before the fire started and another witness said the defendant was standing outside the building shortly before it began burning. The defendant was treated at the scene for a laceration on his hand and sought additional treatment at a hospital. A couple of days after the fire, the cops tracked down the defendant and interviewed him. The Spanish-speaking defendant was provided with an interpreter. Shortly after the interview began, the defendant said he was hearing voices. Thereafter, he began sobbing and praying on the floor, and he repeatedly referred to being possessed by the devil. The police interrogators wrote three statements that were signed by the defendant. In the first statement, the defendant acknowledged being at the scene of the fire and said he broke a window to help children escape from the building. In the second statement, he said he was a lookout for a man who had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the building. And in the third statement, he admitted to throwing a Molotov cocktail into the building with two other men and starting the fire. A superior court jury convicted the defendant of arson and eight counts of second-degree murder. Thirty years after the crime, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial.
After a six-day evidentiary hearing, a superior court judge granted the defendant a new trial, ruling that there was newly discovered evidence that cast doubt on the propriety of his conviction. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed the defendant should receive a new trial, holding that a “confluence of factors” created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. The Court found the defendant had been suffering from alcohol withdrawal delirium at the time of his interrogation, and this information was not presented to the jury. The condition occurs when a person abruptly limits his alcohol intake after drinking a significant amount of alcohol, and it causes disorientation, confusion, and hallucinations. Further, new protocols related to so-called fire science suggests that the fire may have been the result of an accident instead of intentionally set. Finally, the third statement signed by the defendant (which was the most incriminating) was not translated into Spanish before the defendant signed it. The SJC said that while the evidence presented by the defendant does not establish he is innocent, it does establish that justice may not have been done. Accordingly, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.