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Michael O'Laughlin

Other Massachusetts Exonerations
At 1:55 a.m. on November 17, 2000, a man at the Fox Hollow apartments in Lee, Massachusetts called the police after he heard a woman in the apartment below scream and also what he said sounded like “wood hitting wood.”

Officers with the Lee Police Department arrived about six minutes later but were unable to find the unit because the numbers at the complex had been recently redone. But they saw 35-year-old Michael O’Laughlin outside in a pair of boxer shorts. It was 35 degrees outside.

O’Laughlin was a maintenance man at the complex, and he lived onsite. He asked the officers what was going on, and they said they were responding to a report of a woman screaming. O’Laughlin said he had been awakened by the sound of screaming but thought it was a raccoon trapped in a dumpster. (He had been propping the dumpsters open with sticks to keep the animals from getting caught.) He showed the officers the dumpster, which had a stick but no animal. The officers would later note that O’Laughlin seemed “uneasy and distant” and wouldn’t make eye contact.

But the officers left without speaking to the man who called the police or finding anything suspicious.

A few hours later, just before 6:00 a.m., the man who called the police heard glass breaking in the unit downstairs and a man’s voice saying, “Oh my God.”

David Finn had shown up at the home of his girlfriend, 49-year-old Annmarie Kotowski, to have coffee with her, as they did on many mornings.

When she didn’t come to the door and sounded in distress, he forced open a sliding door and found Kotowski on the floor. She had been severely beaten. Blood was everywhere, and there appeared to be no sign of a previous forced entry. In addition, there appeared to be nothing taken. Kotowski would later testify that the intruder didn’t take her pearls, jewelry or an expensive watch, all of which had been visible in the bedroom near where she was found. Nothing was taken from her purse. Investigators found more than $500 in a bedroom drawer.

Kotowski had only lived in the complex since September. Earlier that year, she and her husband, David Kotowski, had separated after she told him she was having an affair with Finn. A week before the attack, Kotowski told her husband she was considering a divorce. The police questioned David Kotowski but quickly ruled him out as a suspect.

O’Laughlin lived two doors down from Kotowski and had a passkey to the units. Neighbors told investigators that he was perhaps a bit too friendly with the woman. Once, when Kotowski’s sister was visiting, he had asked whether “there were any more good-looking women in there.” He had told friends that he admired her antique furniture, which he thought signified wealth, and also that he was attracted to her body shape.

O’Laughlin was a drug user. He had been smoking crack cocaine on the night of November 16 but had run out of drugs and money around midnight. Between 12:10 a.m. and 1:43 a.m., O’Laughlin placed or received at least 14 telephone calls at his apartment as he tried to find drugs or money to pay for them.

In addition, O’Laughlin had been acquitted in May 1999 of burglary and assault charges on a woman after she accused him of breaking into her home and trying to rape her.

Two police officers caught up with O’Laughlin again at around 9:30 a.m. on November 17, and he agreed to give a statement at the station. The officers noticed what appeared to be a scratch on his cheek, a small cut in his chin and some bruising below his left ear. But they didn’t ask O’Laughlin about these minor injuries.

O’Laughlin waited for the interview to start, but then quickly left to meet someone at the apartment complex about a maintenance issue and returned to the police station about 20 minutes later. In this first interview, he told Chief Ronald Glidden that he had been drinking before he went to bed and didn’t awaken until he heard the police siren. He said he knew Kotowski by sight, had been in her apartment to repair a window, and had joked with a friend about Finn, her boyfriend. After the interview with Glidden ended, O’Laughlin returned to work.

Officers with the Massachusetts State Police arrived at the complex at noon. They asked for O’Laughlin’s consent to search his apartment, which he gave. A trooper photographed a red stain on a closet door near the kitchen. A chemist with the state police asked for O’Laughlin’s consent to take a swab of the stain. He declined and then asked the troopers to leave.

The officers went outside and began the process of applying for a search warrant. They told O’Laughlin of their intent. He then said they didn’t need a warrant and let them back inside. He told the troopers he had cleaned the stain off the closet door and that he thought it was his own blood but wasn’t sure. He told the troopers that he had been hesitant to allow a search because he was worried the officers would find his drug paraphernalia. One of the troopers told O’Laughlin to give him the paraphernalia and that O’Laughlin wouldn’t be charged with drug possession or related crimes.

A chemist with the state police examined the closet door. The area tested positive for the presumptive presence of blood. Investigators took a swab sample, as well as the clothes and shoes that O’Laughlin said he wore the night before.

Separately, a tracking dog was brought to search the area. The dog found an aluminum bat in the woods, covered with leaves and debris, but otherwise clean. O’Laughlin’s name was inscribed on the bat. He would later tell an inmate in jail that he hadn’t seen the bat since he moved into the apartment.

Police arrested O’Laughlin on November 20 and charged him with armed burglary and assault, armed assault in a dwelling, armed assault with the intent to murder, and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon.

Investigators recovered 14 fingerprints and one palm print from Kotowski’s apartment. None matched O’Laughlin. Separately, a footprint impression taken at the apartment didn’t match O’Laughlin’s boots. The state police also examined the aluminum bat and found three small reddish-brown stains that tested positive for the presumptive presence of blood, but only one tested positive for human blood. Because of contamination in the DNA lab, the results of these tests had to be discarded, and by that time all the testable material had been consumed. Later, investigators also tested blood on the bat’s tape. A DNA analyst with the state police said that Kotowski could not be excluded as a contributor but noted that any one in two randomly selected persons could be the contributor.

O’Laughlin’s trial began May 14, 2002 in Berkshire Superior Court. Because of her injuries and the nature of the attack, Kotowski testified but was unable to identify her assailant, although she did testify that nothing was stolen. Prosecutors acknowledged in opening arguments that their case against O’Laughlin was circumstantial. There were no eyewitnesses, and no forensic or physical evidence that tied him to the assault.

The surgeon who performed reconstructive surgeries on Kotowski testified that she had been hit between 15 and 20 times and had broken almost every bone in her face and skull. She also had defensive wounds on her hands, caused by other blows. He said the injuries were caused by being hit with a long, hard, sturdy object that was consistent with a baseball bat. But he did not say that that bat found in the woods was the weapon used.

O’Laughlin did not testify. His attorney presented evidence suggesting that police had ignored Kotowski’s husband as a viable suspect in the attack. This evidence included conflicting testimony about where David Kotowski was on the morning of the assault, his refusal to let police look at his personal correspondence, and a field test conducted on November 17 that showed the presumptive presence of blood on his forearms. In addition, investigators found two wet towels smelling strongly of bleach in his trunk. One of the towels was the same type as the towels in his wife’s linen closet. David Kotowski said he had used them for a hunting trip and didn’t know how to do laundry. He also was a former athlete with a collection of bats.

O’Laughlin sought to introduce into evidence a note found in Annmarie Kotowski’s bedroom. It read in part: “Threat to kill him if seen in public” and also appeared to call Annmarie Kotowski a “whore.” O’Laughlin’s attorney argued the note contradicted testimony about David Kotowski’s demeanor and suggested he had violent thoughts. But Judge Thomas J. Curley, Jr. would not allow the note’s admission, because its authorship was ambiguous. Annmarie Kotowski denied writing the note, and the jury could not compare it to a separate note that she did write.

The jury convicted O’Laughlin of all charges on May 23, 2002. He was sentenced to between 35 and 50 years in prison.

O’Laughlin appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him and that Curley had erred in disallowing the admission of the suspicious note. On July 8, 2005, his conviction was vacated by the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. The court noted that while prosecutors were allowed to present a circumstantial case, and that O’Laughlin had motive and opportunity and had also displayed signs of consciousness of guilt, “nothing in the record sufficiently links the defendant to the crime to permit the conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the perpetrator.”

The state appealed the ruling, and in 2006, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the appellate ruling, reinstating the conviction. It said O’Laughlin’s actions, particularly his effort to clean the stain on his closet door and his initial statements to police about why he was up at 2 a.m., demonstrated sufficient consciousness of guilt to support a conviction.

O’Laughlin then filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. It was denied, and then he appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

On June 10, 2009, the three-judge appellate panel granted his petition and dismissed his conviction. It further ruled that O’Laughlin could not be retried because of double jeopardy protection.

Writing for the court, Justice Juan Torruella, said: “The instant facts may support a reasonable speculation that O'Laughlin was the assailant, but not sufficient evidence to establish his guilt. Taken together, the circumstantial evidence in this case, even when drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution, does not permit any rational jury to conclude that O'Laughlin was the assailant beyond a reasonable doubt.” Torruella’s ruling noted that “there was no physical or forensic evidence linking O'Laughlin to the crime scene; O'Laughlin's financial motive was inconsistent with the evidence in Mrs. Kotowski's apartment; and O'Laughlin presented compelling third-party evidence that Mr. Kotowski was the actual assailant.”

O’Laughlin was released from prison on September 1, 2009. The state tried to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but its petition for review was declined on January 19, 2010, officially ending O’Laughlin’s case.

He later filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Lee, several of its police officers, and the district attorney for civil-rights violations and malicious prosecution. The case was dismissed without settlement in 2013.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/2/2020
Last Updated: 9/2/2020
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Other Violent Felony, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:35 to 50 years
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No