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Raymond Champagne

Other Massachusetts exonerations
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At about 9 p.m. on November 15, 1978, 29-year-old Stephen Curvin, an inmate at Walpole prison, one of the deadliest prisons in Massachusetts history, was fatally stabbed on tier B-1. Four other inmates were convicted in the killing. One—Raymond Champagne—was exonerated in 2020 after serving more than 40 years while wrongly convicted of the murder.

Correctional officer David Almeida said that at about 8:50 p.m., Curvin and Champagne, who was 23 years old, came to his desk asking for medication. Minutes later, Almeida saw Curvin and Champagne sitting at a table in a common area known as the “flats,” talking to each other. There were no sounds of a commotion or yelling, but not long after, Curvin approached Almeida and asked him to open the door to leave the tier. He was bleeding heavily. Almeida let him out and called for help. Curvin died at 10 p.m. in an ambulance heading to Norwood Hospital.

While Curvin was being removed, Almeida followed a blood trail that led to the cell of Ronald Roberts, whose cell was the 14th of 15 cells on the first floor tier. At about the same time, another officer saw three inmates, two of whom he recognized as Ronald Hogan and James Gallo, running up the stairs to the second floor tier of cells.

When Almeida got to Roberts’s cell, Roberts was mopping up blood. Almeida strip-searched Roberts while other officers searched the cell. They recovered the bloody mop, a paper bag with drops of blood, and a 4.5 inch drill bit with the end sharpened to a point. Roberts was taken to a segregation area. Meanwhile, officers began shaking down all the cells and common areas on Block B, which was comprised of three floors of cells.

The first cell to be searched was cell 13, which was next to Roberts’s cell and belonged to Champagne. Officers recovered a recently washed pair of jeans hanging over a chair. The right leg had what appeared to be a bloodstain. Blood-typing would later determine it was Type O blood—the same type as Curvin’s and Champagne’s blood.

On the second tier, officers found a nine-inch knife hidden in a hole behind a sink. The state would present it as evidence, but never linked it to the stabbing. The prosecution had never requested that knife be compared to Curvin’s wounds or be tested for the presence of blood.

Within the hour, state police, led by trooper John Nasuti, arrived to investigate. Nasuti met with every inmate on the block. After 3 a.m., he met with Roberts, who he said was “extremely emotionally upset, nervous...a bundle of nerves.” Roberts later said that Nasuti threatened to charge him with the murder unless he gave a statement.

Nasuti’s report said Roberts said that about an hour before the attack, he was in his cell with Curvin and another inmate, Donald Cormier, watching a movie. At 8:45 p.m., Roberts left his cell when three other inmates—Michael Flaherty, Gallo, and Hogan—called him out. Roberts said Flaherty told him he had a “beef” with Curvin and that he was going to “buff him up a little, punch him out.” One of them said that because Curvin was “kind of a big guy,” they would need three people to hold him down.

Roberts said this conversation took place in front of Champagne’s cell and that Roberts immediately left to get tobacco from the corrections officer on duty and then went to Cormier’s cell.

Days later, Roberts was taken out of the prison for an interview at the state police barracks in Foxboro. He now said he left his cell because he smelled marijuana. He said he saw Hogan and asked for a joint. While they were talking, he saw Flaherty, Gallo, an inmate named Carl Hoffer, and Champagne in Champagne’s cell. Roberts said he overheard Flaherty, Hogan, and Gallo talking outside of Champagne’s cell. Flaherty said he wanted to beat Curvin because Curvin had killed one of Flaherty’s friends on the street before entering the prison.

Roberts said that when he protested the use of his cell for the attack, Gallo told him not to worry because it was only going to be “a fist fight.” Roberts now quoted Gallo as saying that “the guy’s kind of big, so three of us are gonna have to run in on him, man and buff him up.” Roberts said that the three referred to Flaherty, Hogan, and Gallo. “I don’t know if Ray Champagne was even involved.”

Roberts said that while he was in Cormier’s cell, which was #3 and 11 cells removed from his own cell, he heard a commotion. He said he then saw Curvin coming toward the exit door, bleeding. He said he went back to his cell and while he was mopping up blood, he saw Hogan, Flaherty, and Gallo in Champagne’s cell, changing their clothes. Hogan called to Roberts to “send me over a pair of pants,” and Roberts did so. Roberts also said that officers took the mop from him and shook down his cell “looking for the knife.”

On November 24, 1978, Benjamin Butler, another inmate, gave a statement. On the night of the crime, he told investigators he wanted to talk, but not at that time. And although Butler sought a transfer out of the prison that same night, he was not moved until January 11, 1979—two days after the evidence was presented to a grand jury. By the time of Butler's November 24 statement, Roberts, Hogan, Flaherty, and Gallo had been removed from the tier. Champagne, however, remained in his same cell. Butler, in his statement, said that while standing on the third tier, B-3—where his cell was located—he saw Gallo, Hogan, Champagne, and Curvin in the common area on the first floor. He said he saw Hogan and Curvin walk into Roberts’s cell and that Gallo and Champagne followed moments later. Butler said that about a minute later, Curvin ran out that cell. “I saw Gallo follow him and I saw Gallo stick him in the left side of the back. He was bleeding. Gallo, in almost a continual motion, went toward the gallery wall, turned left and walked all the way up to the end and went upstairs.”

Butler said he ran downstairs to the first tier and saw Flaherty walking toward him from Roberts’s cell. “He was wearing a blue sweat suit and he had it folded in the front, holding onto it like he was hiding something,” Butler said. Flaherty walked within 10 feet of Butler. “I saw that he had blood on his left sleeve and also I saw blood on his lower left side of the jersey or top part of his sweat suit. I did not see Hogan or Champagne at that time. I did not see them come out of the [cell] either.”

Butler would later testify at trial that this statement was totally false—that it was impossible to see what he claimed to have seen because the walkways on the tiers outside of the rows of cells on tiers 2 and 3 obscured any view of cells on the first floor, where the murder occurred. He later explained that he had been at Walpole for 28 months and he wanted to get out. Butler never saw Champagne outside his cell, he said and “didn’t see a damned one of those men do nothing to nobody.”

However, the grand jury that indicted Flaherty, Hogan, Gallo, and Champagne never heard that recantation. Instead, the grand jury heard Trooper Nasuti repeat Butler’s original statement, even though Nasuti had been on the third tier many times and knew that it was impossible to see the cell where Curvin was stabbed from Butler’s cell.

The prosecution gained another witness in April 1979 when James Bernardini came forward. Bernardini was in the third of the 15 cells on the first floor and 11 cells away from cell 14 where Curvin was stabbed. On the night of the murder, Bernardini was interviewed. He had not seen Curvin and had no information about what happened.

One month later, Bernardini was paroled from Walpole to a halfway house. However, he soon walked away without permission. A few weeks later, Bernardini was arrested in Dedham, Massachusetts for violating parole. He was taken to Billerica House of Correction where he saw Gallo, who reported that Roberts was “ratting” on Gallo in the Curvin murder.

Bernardini escaped from Billerica by impersonating an inmate who was due to be released. Within weeks, however, he was arrested again and sent back to Billerica. With about two years remaining on his prison sentence, Bernardini notified the prosecution that he wanted to talk. On April 11, 1979, Bernardini gave a two-page statement to Trooper Nasuti. Bernardini said he was in Jack Hurney’s cell (cell 4) with inmate Jack Egan when Champagne came in and asked Hurney for “the pick he was holding for him.” A pick was the term inmates used to describe any weapon that was cylindrical and sharped to a point like an ice pick.

Bernardini said Hurney gave Champagne a 12-inch long sharpened piece of metal with a white cloth handle. When Hurney asked what was going on, Champagne said, “Nothing. Don’t worry about it,” according to Bernardini. A short time later, Flaherty walked by, headed in the direction of the end of the tier that ended with cell 15. Bernardini said Champagne came back to the cell and said for them to stay inside and that “you didn’t hear or see anything.”

Ten minutes later, Bernardini said Curvin walked by slowly, with blood gushing from him. Not long after, Flaherty came by with a blue and white bathrobe, which was not what he had been wearing earlier, Bernardini said.

A week later, Bernardini said that Champagne came by Bernardini’s cell and commented on the fact that Flaherty, Hogan, and Gallo had been removed from the tier, but he hadn’t. According to Bernardini, Champagne said that Flaherty took Champagne’s bathrobe to cover his clothing after the attack and that guards had taken a pair of jeans from his cell.

Two or three days later, Bernardini said, Champagne said that Curvin wasn’t supposed to be killed. Champagne said that Flaherty, Hogan, and Gallo were in the cell with Curvin when “a beef broke out. Curvin was so big that he bulled his way out”, at which point Champagne, who was outside acting as a lookout, pulled out a weapon, stuck Curvin in the cheek with it, and pushed him back into the cell, Bernardini said.

Bernardini said that Champagne said that one of the weapons used was a sharpened butter knife that was broken up and flushed down the toilet. Champagne, he said, had hidden the other weapons in his cell and they were not found during the shakedown.

Champagne, Gallo, and Hogan went to trial in August 1979. Flaherty had been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. The principal evidence against them was the testimony of Bernardini, Roberts, and Trooper Nasuti.

Bernardini’s testimony tracked his statement, although the trial judge excluded the reference to Champagne’s alleged statement that they disposed of one weapon in a toilet and hid the others in his cell.

Although the prosecution and defense questioned Bernardini about his prior convictions, no one asked him whether he had any pending cases. Years later, when Champagne’s legal team spoke with Bernardini, he acknowledged that he actually had six pending cases. He claimed that he discussed these cases in advance of trial with Nasuti, and that while Bernardini claimed that he was not promised any leniency, he said that Nasuti “did tell me that he would make the judge aware of my cooperation.” Records obtained years later by Champagne’s legal team showed that all the cases were indeed resolved without additional prison time for Bernardini.

At trial, Roberts testified that Flaherty, Hogan, and Gallo—but not Champagne—talked to him about their plan to attack Curvin. He also said that when he returned to his cell, he saw Hogan, Gallo and Flaherty changing clothes in Champagne’s cell while Champagne was sitting on his bed.

But for the first time, Roberts said he recognized the blood-stained pants recovered from Champagne’s cell as Champagne’s pants. Roberts testified that Trooper Nasuti threatened to charge him with the crime unless he gave a statement.

The prosecution also called Butler, who recanted his initial statement, and said he saw nothing happen. Then, through the testimony of Nasuti, Butler was impeached by his initial statement—even though it was physically impossible for his first statement to have been true because of the layout of the three tiers of cells. Butler also testified that Nasuti threatened to send him back to Walpole unless he testified for the prosecution.

The medical examiner, Dr. George Katsas, testified Curvin was stabbed with a knife, contradicting Bernardini’s claim that Champagne armed himself with a pick and later admitted stabbing Curvin in the chest with that pick. Katsas said Curvin’s wounds “are all consistent with knife wounds” and “are not pick wounds.”

Officer Almeida contradicted Bernardini’s testimony that Curvin charged out of the cell and was pushed back in after Champagne stabbed him, saying that he did not hear any sounds of a struggle or notice any movement in or out of the cells that night.

Inmate Carl Hoffer testified that on the night of the crime, he heard a noise and went to the front of his cell, which was the 11th cell. There, he saw Curvin, who said, “What the [obscenity] is going on? Ronny just stuck me.” Hoffer said Roberts was known in Walpole as “Ronny.”

Inmate Daniel Cormier testified that on the night of the stabbing, Roberts came to Cormier’s cell and asked for a knife and that Cormier gave it to him.

On August 24, 1979, the jury convicted all three men of first-degree murder. All were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Champagne filed two motions for a new trial prior to the resolution of his direct appeal. Both claimed that the prosecution had withheld information about picks recovered from the first tier in the immediate aftermath of the stabbing. The first, relating to a pick pulled from the trash, was denied after the prosecutor said he was unaware of it.

The second concerned a pick discovered in Hogan’s cell. Champagne’s lawyer learned from a prison officer named Kilnapp that he discovered the pick. The trial prosecutor contended he had never seen that report, but also claimed that he disclosed that information to the defense. Although the defense attorney said the information had not been disclosed, the motion was denied.

In January 1982, Flaherty pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison. At the time, Flaherty said that there “was somebody else involved, but that the person who was involved is like—I fear for my life and if I say who was involved and all that, I have to live in prison. Retribution will be there.”

In January 1987, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the denials of the motions for new trial as well as the jury convictions.

In 2018 and 2019, the prosecution provided documents to Champagne, who was represented by Lisa Kavanaugh, director of the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program.

Some of the documents had been provided to Flaherty’s lawyer prior to Flaherty's guilty plea. None had been disclosed to the lawyers for Hogan, Gallo, or Champagne. Among them was a report of the discovery of the pick in Hogan’s cell. That report said that an officer Kilner—not Kilnapp—discovered the pick. The existence of that report strongly suggested that the prosecutor’s claim of never having seen the report was false.

The documents included statements from inmates that had not been disclosed to the defense. Donald Cormier said that he gave Roberts a knife on the night of the crime and that Roberts said he “was going to get” Curvin. Cormier said that almost immediately after Roberts took the knife, there was a commotion “and an inmate walked by bleeding profusely.”

Inmate Michael Fitzpatrick said that a couple of days before Curvin was stabbed, an inmate asked him to tell Curvin that his package of drugs had arrived and he could have it in a couple of days. Fitzpatrick said that when he relayed the message to Curvin, Roberts was present. Fitzpatrick and a third inmate, Wayne Rurtell, also described occasions when Roberts came to them trying to obtain knives.

Two other inmates had given statements on the night of the murder that Butler was on the third tier with them at the time of the crime and could not have seen the events on the first floor.

The documents also showed that as of September 1980—just over a year after Champagne was convicted—the prosecution was aware that in June 1980, an inmate accused Roberts and other inmates of sexually assaulting him. The inmate said he did not immediately report the assault because Roberts said that if he talked, “the same thing would happen to him” that happened to an inmate at Walpole. Roberts said that he had stabbed an inmate and gave the bloody pants to another inmate, whom Roberts then blamed.

Champagne’s defense team also got an affidavit from Flaherty’s father, Michael Flaherty Sr., who spoke to them several years after his son's death in 2009. Flaherty’s father said he was present at meetings with Flaherty and his defense attorney prior to his guilty plea. At the meetings, Flaherty said he wanted to make a statement that would have exonerated Champagne. According to the elder Flaherty, his son “always insisted that Ray Champagne was not involved in the incident” and that “the one individual who stabbed Curvin was not Ray Champagne.”

In October 2019, Kavanaugh filed a motion for a new trial based on the newly discovered evidence. “For forty-one years, Raymond Champagne has steadfastly maintained that he had no role whatsoever in the stabbing death of Stephen Curvin,” the motion said. “Every new piece of evidence that has come to light since his trial supports this position and shows that justice was not done.”

On February 18, 2020, after the prosecution said it had no objection to the motion, Norfolk County Superior Court Judge Thomas vacated Champagne’s conviction and ordered his release. On July 13, 2020, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/30/2020
Last Updated: 7/31/2020
State:Massachusetts
County:Norfolk
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1978
Convicted:1979
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No