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Court orders new trial for man convicted of strangulation murder in Dorchester - in 1972

The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for Anthony Mazza, who was convicted 47 years ago on charges he strangled a bank manager in a Bowdoin Street rooming house, after concluding his lawyer never got a police statement that might have implicated the tenant of the apartment where the dead man's body was found.

The ruling comes on Mazza's sixth appeal of his 1973 conviction for the death of Peter Armata, a Malden resident and the manager of the First National Bank branch in Uphams Corner, whose body police found tied up in a closet on the second floor of a house on Bowdoin Street at Downer Court on July 5, 1972 - after neighbors reported a foul smell to police.

The apartment was rented by Robert Anderson, a friend of Mazza's, who had agreed to let him stay there for awhile.

Mazza was convicted after Anderson testified he came home one night to find Mazza and Armata's body. Anderson acknowledged he was the one who stuffed Armata's body in a closet, which he said he did after Mazza gave him the keys to Armata's Grand Prix, parked outside. But Anderson also gave frequently contradictory answers to questions during his testimony, sometimes answering "yes" to a question and then "no" when asked again, and admitting during the trial he had lied to the grand jury. In fact, when he was called to the stand to testify, he first refused, saying "I an't got nothing to say, no way, no way," according to a Globe account at the time.

Despite this, and an alibi witness who said Mazza had been with him drinking the whole night in the South End on the night of the murder in Dorchester, a jury convicted Mazza of first-degree murder, which, then as now, meant a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

At issue for the state's highest court was a statement given to police by Anderson's brother, William, to police during their investigation, about a week after Armata's body was found, that might have supported Mazza's argument that Anderson was the murderer, not him.

Mazza, now in his mid-70s, obtained a copy of the statement during ten years of using the state public-records law to obtain documents related to his case and used it to argue that his lawyer was never given a copy of the statement, as required, and that had he had it, he would have used it to bolster Mazza's case.

The Suffolk County District Attorney's office argued, in essence, that that was nonsense, that of course Mazza's lawyer had gotten all of the required documents. The lawyer himself couldn't say - by the time of Mazza's latest appeal, he was dead, his case records gone.

So the justices had to try to use logic to determine whether Mazza's original lawyer never got the statement and that its discovery years after the trial constituted "new evidence."

First, the justices noted that the lawyer made extensive use of police statements by Anderson and another witness to poke holes in Anderson's statements, yet never brought up William Anderson's statement - and barely questioned William Anderson during his cross examination to try to further implicate Anderson:

The Commonwealth argues that counsel made a conscious, tactical decision not to cross-examine William rigorously because his direct testimony, specifically that Robert showed William the victim's body and offered William the victim's ring, supported the defense's theory that Robert was the true culprit. However, this argument rings hollow. Defense counsel would not have been limited to using the statement for impeachment purposes. He also could have used it to refresh William's recollection of other pertinent details of Robert's treatment of the body and plans to dispose of it, just as he used the prior statement of Robert's other brother, Michael, to refresh his recollection concerning the whereabouts of the defendant on July 1, 1972. Indeed, William's statement contained highly inculpatory details of Robert's handling of the victim's body, details that were not mentioned in William's testimony and that would have been particularly beneficial to the defendant's case. In view of the manner in which trial counsel employed prior statements when cross-examining other witnesses, it is difficult to conceive of a tactical reason for failing to make similar use of William's statement.

Although the question whether William's statement to police constitutes "newly discovered" evidence is a close call, this is not a case where the only evidence of absence is the absence of evidence. As discussed supra, there are several pieces of relevant, circumstantial evidence, including the defendant's affidavit, the affidavits submitted by his various postconviction counsel, and a record revealing experienced trial counsel's skillful use of other witness statements. Viewed separately, no one piece of evidence is particularly persuasive. When viewed as a whole, however, a more compelling picture emerges. In light of the unique circumstances of this case, therefore, we conclude that the defendant has sustained his burden of establishing that defense counsel did not have William's 1972 police statement prior to or, for that matter, at trial, and, thus, that it constitutes newly discovered evidence.

In a footnote, the justices added:

We further note that trial counsel was a well-known and highly regarded member of the bar who, as reflected by his performance during this trial, knew his way around a court room. Had he been in possession of William's statement, it is highly probable, based on his treatment of other witnesses, that he would have used the statement in an effort to elicit details that further incriminated Robert.

But that leaves the question of whether the new evidence is important enough to warrant a new trial. You bet, the justices continued.

The theory of the defense was that Robert was the killer. William's statement provided details that would have strongly bolstered that theory because it demonstrated that Robert had control over the victim's body and belongings, and had a plan for disposing of the body. According to William, Robert gave William what turned out to be the victim's ring, and later asked William to help dispose of the body. After William rejected Robert's request for assistance, Robert disclosed his plan to dump the body in the river. Robert also had access to the victim's body by way of a key. And Robert demonstrated an apparent ease with the body when he cut the nylon stocking from the victim's mouth and the rope from the victim's wrists. Finally, William reported that the defendant was not present when Robert discussed the body of the victim with, or showed the body to, William.

Moreover, and significantly, the case against the defendant was far from overwhelming. Robert, an admitted participant in handling, controlling, and plotting to dispose of the victim's body, was the only witness who maintained that the defendant was guilty of murder. Outside of Robert's testimony, the Commonwealth's case against the defendant consisted of an eyewitness identification of the defendant near the scene on the same night as the killing, and the defendant's subsequent possession of the victim's driver's license and bank identification card and attempted use of his credit card.

So given a weak case by prosecutors, the statement could certainly have helped sway the jury, and that means there's a major risk "justice may not have been done," the court concluded.

Briefs by Mazza's attorney and Suffolk County DA's office - also includes video of oral arguments before the court.

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The Boston Strangler?

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