A Middlesex Superior Court judge denied defense motions to change venue and to suppress evidence in the case of a Harvard graduate student charged with first-degree murder last spring.
Alexander Pring-Wilson, a student at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the time of his arrest, is charged with fatally stabbing 18-year-old Michael D. Colono on April 12, 2003 after an early-morning altercation outside of Pizza Ring, a pizza parlor on Western Avenue.
Also in the last week, Pring-Wilson’s attorney, Jeffrey A. Denner, filed to withdraw from the case, citing “irreconcilable differences” and “a breakdown in communication” with the defendant.
Judge Charles M. Grabau ruled on May 10 that there was not sufficient evidence that pre-trial media coverage of the case would “prevent the selection of an impartial and unbiased jury.”
Fearing a prejudiced jury in Cambridge, which was home to the slain teenager, the defense had filed a motion in February to move the trial to western Massachusetts.
Grabau also ruled this past Wednesday that Pring-Wilson was not suffering from enough mental and physical trauma to inhibit his ability to make voluntary statements to emergency personnel and his friend around the time of his arrest.
The defense had sought to suppress statements that Pring-Wilson made on the morning of his arrest in which he claimed to be an innocent bystander to the incident.
Pring-Wilson quickly changed his story, admitting he stabbed Colono, but asserting that it was in self-defense.
The motion to suppress claimed that the early statements “were not knowing, intelligent or voluntary”—as admissibility rules require—because the defendant was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, a concussion and intoxication at the time.
Citing a detailed chain of events laid out in the pre-trial hearing, Grabau ruled that Pring-Wilson’s statements were in fact voluntary.
The night of his arrest, Pring-Wilson called 911 and told the dispatcher that he was “just a [expletive] bystander” who had witnessed a stabbing.
According to witnesses called at the pre-trial hearing, he then told Cambridge Police Department (CPD) officers on the scene that he had observed a stabbing and that he was trying to “help out.”
“The fact that Pring-Wilson made efforts to exculpate himself by his explanations is probative of the voluntariness of his statements,” Grabau wrote in the ruling. Grabau wrote that a dime-sized welt on Pring-Wilson’s forehead did not affect his ability to make “knowing and voluntary statements” and that he “refused medical treatment and was able to walk home unassisted.”
After police had left the area, Pring-Wilson left a phone message, which was played in court, for his friend Jennifer Hansen as he was walking to his apartment in Somerville. “I just, um, got attacked. I just got attacked by a group, um...I stabbed him a couple times and—don’t repeat this to the police,” the message said.
“The content of the voicemail message indicates that Pring-Wilson understood his role in the altercation with Colono and the gravity of his situation,” the ruling said.
When CPD officers arrested Pring-Wilson at his apartment later that morning, “he did not smell of alcohol, appeared sober and had no injuries.” Pring-Wilson requested medical attention later that day, after he had been questioned and arrested at the police station.
The evidence from the night of the arrest, coupled with Pring-Wilson’s “intelligence and intellectual capacity” demonstrates “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Pring-Wilson voluntarily made false statements to the police.
On the change of venue motion, Grabau was unswayed by a poll commissioned by the defense that showed that 47 percent of 400 randomly-selected Middlesex County residents had heard of the case.
A polling expert testified in April that Middlesex residents were also 4.5 times more likely to believe Pring-Wilson to be guilty than residents from western Massachusetts. In his ruling, Grabau wrote that although many print, broadcast and online news outlets have covered the case, the coverage “cannot be described as emotionally charged or inflammatory.”
In any case, a juror does not have to be ignorant of the case he is deliberating, Grabau wrote, but needs to “lay aside his impression or opinion and render a verdict based on evidence at the trial.” To prevent a biased jury, Grabbau recommended the court question potential trial jurors about pre-trial publicity and give “daily admonitions to the jury about not reading or watching or discussing media accounts regarding the case.”
The trial has been delayed three months following Denner’s withdrawal from the case, and is now scheduled to be heard by Judge Regina C. Quinlan on Sept. 13. Denner could not be reached for comment this week, but a spokesperson for the district attorney said Pring-Wilson, whose parents are both lawyers, has obtained alternative counsel.
Pring-Wilson remains under house arrest in his apartment.
—Staff writer Hana R. Alberts can be reached at email@example.com.