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George Reissfelder

Sentenced to life in prison in 1967 for the robbery and murder of a railway clerk in Boston’s South Station, George A. Reissfelder was released from prison in 1982 based on his codefendant’s deathbed confession, witnesses supporting Reissfelder’s claims of innocence, and admissions by the police that they knew Reissfelder was innocent at the time of his trial.
Shortly after dawn on October 14, 1966, the Railway Express office in Boston’s South Station was robbed of nearly $20,000 in payroll cash and Michael Shaw, a railway clerk, was shot through the head during the struggle. Shaw later died from his injuries. Three other employees at the office witnessed the shooting and identified William (Silky) Sullivan as the shooter. There was also a second robber (and by some accounts, there may have been a third robber as well). During that same night, George Reissfelder, then 26 years old, told his girlfriend that he was planning an armed robbery in South Boston. His girlfriend told her father of Reissfelder’s plans, and her father went to the police.
The police decided to find Reissfelder based on his girlfriend’s father’s statements and their knowledge that an armed robbery and shooting had occurred the same day, although Boston’s South Station is not in South Boston. The police found Reissfelder the following day with a .22-caliber revolver in his possession. Testing of the revolver showed that it had not been fired, but these test results were not a consideration in the investigation. One of the three witnesses to the shooting told the police that the revolver looked like the one used by Sullivan’s accomplice. The witnesses also identified Reissfelder as the accomplice and he was charged with murder accordingly. At the time of his arrest, Reissfelder had a criminal record, including armed robbery nine years earlier, passing bad checks, and domestic violence.
The trial of Sullivan and Reissfelder took place in July 1967. The prosecutors sought the death penalty for both men. John Costello, a lawyer from Reissfelder’s defense team, met with the head of homicide investigations for the Boston Police Department, who allegedly revealed that he knew Reissfelder was innocent but that the police department did not want to lose the Sullivan conviction. When Costello approached the judge with this information, the head of homicide investigations denied that he had made this statement. Reissfelder and Sullivan were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison on July 21, 1967.
Reissfelder continued to maintain his innocence while in prison. In 1974, he obtained the right to have a one-day furlough from prison to visit family, and, during this furlough, he fled the state. He was apprehended in 1977 while passing a bad check in Jacksonville, Florida. During his capture, he allegedly pulled a gun on the police, although other reports of the incident state that he scuffled with a security officer at the bank and his gun accidentally discharged, wounding the officer. Yet another report of the incident states that Reissfelder was already handcuffed when the gun accidentally discharged, and that no one was injured. Regardless, Reissfelder pleaded guilty to attempted murder because he was told that his sentence would run concurrently with his Massachusetts sentence. He was returned to Boston to continue serving his life sentence there.
Reissfelder maintained his innocence for the next three years. In 1980, a fellow inmate and jailhouse lawyer wrote a brief on his behalf that persuaded a judge to assign lawyer Roanne Sragow to Reissfelder. Sragow’s associate, future U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate John Kerry, also assisted. John Zamparelli, Sullivan’s lawyer from his trial in 1967, set everything into motion regarding Reissfelder’s future release when he called Sragow and told her that Reissfelder was not guilty. Zamparelli also told Sragow that the police knew the identity of the guilty party, but that they had not come forward at the trial.
Sragow subsequently discovered more information pointing to Reissfelder’s innocence. Sullivan had died of leukemia in prison in 1972. Prior to his death, Sullivan had confessed to Rev. Edward D. Cowhig, of Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston, that he had never met Reissfelder before the trial and that Reissfelder was innocent. Cowhig came forward with this deathbed confession in 1980. It was not protected by the priest-penitent privilege because Sullivan had spoken to Cowhig in a non-sacramental setting, and Cowhig signed an affidavit regarding Sullivan’s confession. Sragow also discovered that, in 1968, Sullivan had told a prison caseworker that Reissfelder was innocent.
Based on this information, as well as testimony that Reissfelder did not obtain the revolver allegedly used in the crime until five hours after the crime was committed, Sragow requested a new trial.
Judge Linscott granted the motion for a new trial on July 21, 1982. The district attorney decided against retrying the case and agreed to dismiss the charges. On August 30, 1982, Reissfelder was released from prison. He was paroled on the Florida case because he had already served a lengthy prison term for a crime he did not commit.
Reissfelder continued to be a subject in the news periodically. In December 1985, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected two bills proposing that Reissfelder be paid $900,000 because of his wrongful conviction. As a result, Reissfelder was never compensated by the State of Massachusetts.
Following his release from prison, Reissfelder is believed by many to have been part of one of the most notorious unsolved art heists in the world. On March 18, 1990, $300,000,000 worth of art was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A year later, Reissfelder’s body was found in his Quincy, Massachusetts, apartment, dead from an alleged cocaine poisoning. He was found after reputed New England mobster and drug lord Carmello Merlino, also suspected in the art heist, told firefighters that he had not heard from Reissfelder in days. Merlino and Reissfelder had been captured together in surveillance photographs at Merlino’s auto body shop, where an alleged $1-million-a-year cocaine ring was run, and Reissfelder’s death was a suspected mob hit that was never proven.
– Gillian Deutch
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1966
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct