Jailhouse letters written by convicted mobster and murderer James "Whitey" Bulger may play a role in granting a retrial to a South Boston man who has spent nearly 33 years behind bars for what many believe is a crime he did not commit.
Not long after Robert LaMonica was gunned down just yards from his Braintree apartment in May 1980, prosecutors asked an eyewitness to look at a composite sketch of the suspect. The person he identified was Freddie Wiechel, a tough guy, with a tough reputation from a tough neighborhood in South Boston. But during the trial the prosecution omitted a key piece of evidence, says Boston attorney Michael Ricciuti.
“And this is really through what I think is the admirable cooperation of the Braintree Police Department," Ricciuti said. "They did look at their file. They did find the file on this murder, and that file does include a report from one of their detectives saying that the composite file used to identify Mr. Weichel was also found to resemble another individual, Rocco Balliro, and Mr. Balliro had been found to have been released the day before from prison on furlough. He was doing a very long sentence for a murder conviction and he didn’t return and that the composite was shown to 10 guards at the prison where Mr. Balliro was being housed, and all 10 seemed to think it was Mr. Balliro and not Mr. Weichel.”
That’s the evidence, says Riccuiti, that would have had a major impact on the trial of Fred Weichel — a man who has now spent nearly 33 years behind bars for murder.
“And it would have resulted, I think, in a devastating cross-examination of the government and an indictment of the government’s case, whether or not they actually looked at others who could have committed this crime," Ricciuti said. "That’s why we filed our motion. We don’t think that Mr. Weichel got a fair trail, but this is the clearest example of it. This evidence should have been produced. It’s clearly exculpatory and it would have made the difference at trial.”
That omission of evidence is now being bolstered by letters purportedly written by James "Whitey" Bulger when he was jailed in Plymouth. WGBH News has learned those letters were sent to Weichel's brother.
“An individual came forth to us with the letters," Ricciuti said. "With respect to the letters themselves, we tried to be careful in our filing on Friday in the court not to overstate what the letters state, because the letters are written in a sort of code. So I think, on their face, the letters don’t say anything. If we understand the code correctly, the letters appear to say Mr. Bulger knew the victim; that the victim, according to Mr. Bulger, offered to become a hitman for Mr. Bulger. That Mr. Barrett, Thomas Barrett, came to see Mr. Bulger after he and the victim had a dispute. That correspondence seems to suggest that Thomas Barrett, another man involved in an ongoing feud with the victim, may have committed the murder."
“And Bulger, if you understand the code, suggested Mr. Barrett should kill the victim and that’s what happened," Ricciuti said. "And Bulger, at least as we understand the code, told Barrett never to so speak a word of this and he hopes that Barrett comes forward to exonerate Fred Weichel because Mr. Weichel is in jail wrongly.”
Hank Brennan, Bulger’s lawyer, agreed that his client wrote letters hinting or exclaiming Weichel’s innocence.
“He made a number of efforts to reach out to people and offered many times assistance to help Freddie Weichel’s brother to make an effort to free Freddie," Brennan said.
Riccuiti, who is representing Weichel pro bono, in conjunction with the Innocence Project, is hoping that the letters, though coded and cryptic, might convince the state Supreme Judicial Court to grant his client a new trial. But if that doesn’t work, can Bulger be compelled to testify on behalf of Freddie Weichel?
“You know it’s an interesting question and the long answer to that is: We think we can get an order from the court requiring Mr. Bulger to testify, but Mr. Bulger could assert his Fifth Amendment rights, as well. So could we force him? Probably not. Could we force him to appear? Probably. But I’m not sure it would be worth the effort if he’s not willing to testify to what the letters say."
Brennan says a courtroom appearance by Bulger to testify in this case is out of the question.
“The suggestion that James Bulger will identify that person is wholly fabricated," he said. "Bulger has demonstrated at his own trial and since his arrest, at no time would he ever identify somebody specifically or inform on somebody or tell on somebody. He’s never done it for his own benefit. It’s something that’s inconsistent with his code; it’s inconsistent with his entire history.”
But Ricciuti says there may be another way around this conundrum.
“In some of the letters he suggested that he might be willing to provide a sworn statement, but there are limits to what he said, and in one of the letters that he’s not going to give out the name of the individual he counseled because it’s against his principals," Ricciuti said. "He thinks that individual needs to come forward on his own before Mr. Bulger can be more detailed. Taking that as his position, unless the other person comes forward it’s going to be very difficult to force Mr. Bulger to decode his letters, if you will.”
That individual is Thomas Barrett, who is said to have written a letter to Weichel’s mother in 1982 confessing to the crime for which his friend is now serving time. That letter served as a basis for the granting of a retrial in 2004, but that decision was overruled by the State Supreme Judicial Court, which said that Weichel knew about the Barrett letter but never made it known. Weichel responded, "he couldn't," because Bulger at the time warned him not to implicate Barrett.
“Well, we can show that Mr. Barrett admitted in writing that he committed the murder and that Mr. Weichel did not," Ricciuti said. "So I don’t think that it’s necessary that he framed Mr. Weichel. But there are two pieces of evidence that Mr. Bulger told Mr. Weichel, not to mention the Barrett connection and the evidence that we got from the U.S. Attorneys Office that Mr. Bulger discouraged John Connolly from coming forward and providing an alibi for Mr. Weichel because the evidence appears to be that Mr. Connolly was in a bar with Mr. Weichel at the time this murder took place."
So why is Bulger being so cooperative now, at least in his correspondence?
“I have no idea," Ricciuti said. "I’ve never spoken to the man. I have no idea. The letters say that he wants justice for Mr. Weichel. That’s really all I know. I never got any further than that, than what’s on the face of the letters.”
Weichel’s conviction — based on eyewitness testimony and excluded evidence — is part of Boston’s lingering mob legacy. Now it will be up to a judge hearing the evidence whether Weichel will be granted a new trail with the help of correspondence from Bulger, the man he believed helped keep him behind bars for nearly 33 years.