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Michael Sullivan

Other Massachusetts Exonerations
Shortly after midnight on March 8, 1986, police in Somerville, Massachusetts were alerted to a body wrapped in a bloody quilt and left on the ground behind a defunct Stop & Shop supermarket. The man’s feet had been bound with electrical cord, and four towels and a bloody sweatshirt were rolled up inside the quilt.

Based on a medical benefit card found at the scene, police identified the victim as 54-year-old Wilfred McGrath. His watch, two gold chains, and wallet were missing.

At autopsy determined that he had been savagely beaten—primarily kicked and stomped in the head. He was believed to have lived for an hour after he was dumped behind the store.

Police painstakingly attempted to reconstruct McGrath’s whereabouts. Ultimately, officers were told that sometime in the early morning hours of March 7, McGrath was drinking with some people and got a ride to the apartment of Kathy Sullivan, whose brother, 25-year-old Michael Sullivan, also was staying there.

Sullivan’s niece, Kim Sullivan, told police that she had been out drinking and returned home around 3:30 a.m. Kathy Sullivan and McGrath were there, drinking and consuming cocaine that McGrath had brought. Kim said that she remembered Kathy went to bed and McGrath left at about 6 a.m. Not long after, she said, Michael Sullivan left, presumably to go to work.

Kim said that she was awakened around 10 a.m. on March 8—about 10 hours after McGrath’s body was found—when Michael Sullivan returned to the apartment with Emil Petrla, Steven Angier, and Gary Grace. They had two cases of beer. Angier was the father of a child with Kathy Sullivan and Petrla was a friend of Michael Sullivan, who occasionally spent the night at the apartment.

After Robert Pino, a Massachusetts State Police crime lab analyst, said he found traces of blue automobile paint in the quilt used to wrap McGrath’s body, police obtained a search warrant for Michael Sullivan’s car—a metallic blue Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The car was seized on March 14, 1986.

A search of the car turned up blood in several areas. Pino said that he found blue paint chips in the car that were consistent in color, texture, and composition with those found in the quilt. Pino also concluded that hairs found in the trunk of the car were consistent with McGrath’s hair. In addition, Pino said that feathers used as insulation in a down parka found in the back seat were consistent with feathers found in the quilt.

On March 20, 1986, a fingerprint specialist lifted two prints from the inside of the front passenger door of Sullivan’s car. The prints were matched to Gary Grace. Search warrants were issued that day to get clothing from Grace and Angier. While nothing of significance was obtained from Angier, police at Grace’s apartment found a towel similar to a bloody towel found in the quilt. A further examination turned up an electric extension cord similar to the one used to bind McGrath’s feet.

Blood was found in the handles on the stove and on the front surface of the stove. Floor tiles and a rag mop also tested positive for the presence of blood.

Grace was arrested that day. During questioning by detectives, he implicated Sullivan, Angier, and Petrla in the murder. Eventually, he agreed to testify for the prosecution and in return was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of accessory after a murder for a sentence of six to seven years.

Sullivan, Angier, and Petrla were arrested and charged with murder and robbery.

Sullivan went to trial in March 1987 in Middlesex County Superior Court. The prosecution’s primary witness was Grace, who gave a detailed account of how he was home on the night of March 7 when Petrla, Sullivan, Angier, and McGrath came to his apartment.

Grace said that McGrath believed they were to discuss a plan to market cocaine, but that Petrla told him they planned to rob McGrath, who was carrying a significant sum of money. Grace said that Petrla, a champion weight lifter, was standing behind McGrath. He wrapped a belt around his hand and struck McGrath in the head several times, knocking him to the floor next to the stove.

Grace said Sullivan then stood up and began stomping on McGrath’s head while Petrla kicked him. Grace said he and Petrla tried to get Sullivan to stop, but Sullivan was enraged and out of control. McGrath stopped moving and was lying on the floor, gurgling, he said. Petrla and Angier emptied McGrath’s pockets and divided up the cash. Grace said Sullivan yanked the chains off McGrath’s neck, pulling them so hard that he actually lifted McGrath, who was covered in blood, off the floor.

Grace said they wrapped the body in a quilt, stuffing towels and a bloody sweatshirt in with it. They then carried the body out and put it in the trunk of Sullivan’s car. Grace said Sullivan drove the car and Petrla was in the front passenger seat. Grace said he was behind Sullivan and Angier rode next to him. They dropped the body behind the Stop & Shop and went to a car wash to try to clean up the vehicle.

Grace testified that they returned to his apartment after stopping to buy beer. They also stopped at the apartment of Rosemary Squires-Clark to buy cocaine. They then drove to the apartment where Sullivan lived with his sister, Kathy.

Pino testified that he found blood on the cuffs of a purple jacket that had been seized from Sullivan—a jacket that Grace said Sullivan was wearing when McGrath was killed. Pino also said that a hair found in the pocket of the jacket was consistent in color, texture, and microscopic characteristics with McGrath’s hair and not consistent with Sullivan’s hair.

Pino also testified about finding blood in Grace’s apartment as well as in Sullivan’s car, and that he linked the blue paint chips found in Sullivan’s car to the chips found in the quilt. He told the jury that hairs found in Sullivan’s car were consistent with McGrath’s hair, and that feathers from the filling from a parka in the back seat of the car were consistent with feathers found on the sweatshirt inside the quilt.

Squires-Clark testified for the defense that on March 23, 1986, she called police and turned over a watch, which turned out to be McGrath’s watch. She said Grace sold her the watch.

The most critical defense witness was Petrla, who testified even though he was awaiting trial on murder and robbery charges for the same crime. Petrla gave a vastly different account. He said he borrowed Sullivan’s car on the night of the crime. He said he spent the evening consuming about 2 grams of cocaine and sharing three six-packs of beer with Grace, who also used cocaine.

At about 6 a.m., Petrla said, they were driving to Sullivan’s apartment to return the car when Grace saw McGrath, who Petrla did not know, standing at a cabstand and asked Petrla to pick him up. Petrla said that instead of taking the car back to Sullivan, they went back to Grace’s apartment after Grace convinced McGrath to sell them a gram of cocaine. At the apartment, Grace went into the bathroom to inject some cocaine and angrily emerged moments later, complaining that the cocaine was of poor quality.

Petrla said Grace started a fight with McGrath. When McGrath began to get the better of it, Petrla said he intervened and knocked McGrath to the floor and kicked him. He said Grace then began stomping McGrath. Petrla said he had to punch Grace to get him to stop. They both agreed that McGrath looked dead.

Petrla said that Grace took McGrath’s chains, watch, cocaine, and cash—giving Petrla $300 that Grace owed him. Petrla said he helped Grace put McGrath into the quilt and then into the trunk of Sullivan’s car. He said Grace directed him to drive behind the defunct grocery store where they dumped the body. Petrla’s account then dovetailed with Grace’s account—they bought beer, more cocaine, and went to Sullivan’s to return the car. Angier was there and so they went inside. Grace tried to inject cocaine, but missed his vein and sprayed blood all over the ceiling. Sullivan then ordered Grace to leave.

During closing arguments, the prosecution stressed that the blood found on the cuffs of Sullivan’s jacket tied him to the crime, as did the hair found in the pocket of the jacket. The defense argued that Grace was not credible and was lying to protect his deal. The defense argued that finding Grace’s fingerprints on the inside of the front passenger door strongly suggested he was in the passenger seat, as Petrla had testified.

On March 24, 1987, the jury convicted Sullivan of first-degree murder and armed robbery. The murder conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Not long afterward, Petrla pled guilty to second-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Angier later pled guilty to being an accessory to murder.

In July 1991, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Sullivan’s convictions. Steven Rappaport, the attorney who represented Sullivan at trial and on appeal, then contacted the Massachusetts Committee for Public Council Services program and urged that a lawyer be appointed to file a motion for new trial. Rappaport said the motion should be based on his failure to object to the admission of Grace’s plea agreement into evidence. The plea agreement contained language that vouched for Grace’s truthfulness, which the jury should not have seen, Rappaport said.

In 1992, attorney Dana Curhan was appointed through the Committee for Public Council Services program to file that motion. Curhan would spend more than a quarter of a century working to exonerate Sullivan.

In 1993, Curhan filed a motion for a new trial claiming that Sullivan’s trial attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense. The motion was denied without a hearing.

In 1996, Curhan filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2002, the federal litigation was temporarily halted to allow for further appeals in the state court. In 2008, Curhan filed a motion for a new trial and requested a court order to provide funding for DNA testing on Sullivan’s jacket and the hair found in the jacket pocket. From the first time that Curhan met Sullivan, he said that if tests could be done on his jacket, no blood would be found.

However, the motion for a new trial was denied without a hearing and the motion for funding was not addressed.

In 2007, Pino was fired after 23 years at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab. Officials said that Pino allowed the collection of samples not permitted by law, reported incomplete results to police, and failed to report DNA database matches to prosecutors until after the statute of limitations for the crimes had elapsed.

In 2010, Curhan filed a renewed motion for DNA testing and advised the court that the Committee for Public Council Services Innocence Program would pay for the tests. The motion was granted in 2011 and tests were performed by the Massachusetts State Police crime lab and by Orchid Cellmark, a private DNA testing firm.

The crime lab and Cellmark both reported that there was no blood on the cuffs of Sullivan’s jacket—as Pino had claimed. Cellmark also reported that DNA found on the jacket did not come from McGrath. In addition, Cellmark said attempts to compare the hair from the jacket pocket to McGrath’s hair were “inconclusive.” Because there was no follicle, mitochondrial DNA testing could not be done.

Curhan then filed a motion for a new trial. In November 2012, Superior Court Justice Kathe Tuttman vacated Sullivan’s convictions. “With this newly available evidence, the defendant has cast real doubt on the justice of his conviction,” Judge Tuttman declared.

On January 8, 2013, Sullivan was released on bond although he was required to wear a GPS tracking device.

The prosecution appealed and in August 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Judge Tuttman’s decision. At Curhan’s request, Arthur Kelly came into the case to handle a retrial—if it were to ever occur.

It did not.

More than four years later, on February 28, 2019, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the charges. On March 1, 2019 the motion was granted.

With his ankle bracelet removed, Sullivan declared, “I feel like a new man.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/7/2019
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1986
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*