Manslaughter Retrial Begins for Former Grad Student

Professors Weigh In on Pring-Wilson's Fate

On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury found former Harvard graduate student Alexander Pring-Wilson guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of an 18-year-old Cambridge hotel cook. Now, with that verdict thrown out and the commencement of his second trial yesterday, Pring-Wilson has another chance to prove his innocence.

Sitting expressionless at a table centered in the nearly-empty courtroom, Pring-Wilson, now 29 years old, listened attentively as Middlesex Superior Court Judge Christopher Muse began the proceedings. Seated next to Pring-Wilson was his lawyer E. Peter Parker, a graduate of Boston University Law School who now runs his own practice in Boston, and in front of them sat District Attorney Adrienne C. Lynch, a veteran prosecutor with 27 years of experience under her belt in Middlesex County. Yesterday marked the beginning of jury selection and the incipience of a trial set to last until Dec. 7.

THE STORY CONTINUES

This trial marks the latest development in the four-year long saga that began with a chance encounter between then-masters student in Russian and Slavic studies Pring-Wilson and the now deceased Michael D. Colono in the spring of 2003 outside a Western Avenue pizza parlor. According to his defense attorneys, Pring-Wilson acted in self-defense when he and Colono became involved in an altercation that ended with Pring-Wilson stabbing Colono five times in 70 seconds. Pring-Wilson was convicted and sentenced to six to eight years in prison in his 2004 trial.

But five months after his conviction, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the state’s highest court, handed down a ruling allowing juries to consider a victim’s violent history in self-defense cases, even if the parties did not know each other beforehand. Colono’s violent history was excluded from the original trial. Pring-Wilson’s lawyers appealed and in 2005 Judge Regina L. Quinlan overturned Pring-Wilson’s conviction and called for a new trial. The prosecution appealed Quinlan’s decision but the SJC upheld it in April of this year.

With the admission of this new evidence, the jury in this retrial will now be able to hear about Colono’s violent past from the defense, including an incident in which Colono was arrested after throwing money in the face of a cashier at a pizzeria and shattering the glass in the front door. The jury may also hear about another case in which Colono alledgedly assaulted two people on a subway and then spit on the police officers who arrested him, according to the Associated Press. In the original trial, the jury was only allowed to hear about Colono’s arrest and conviction for possession of a controlled substance in 2001.

Besides the violent history of Colono, the defense will also be able to cite the record of Colono’s cousin Samuel Rodriguez. Rodriguez was with Colono on the night he died and said he jumped into the fight when he could see his relative losing. Whereas the jury was previously allowed to hear only about Rodriguez’s three prior assault and battery convictions, they will now be able to learn that Rodriguez once egged a passing car and then attacked one of its riders, hit his sister in the eye with a cup and then tried to knife his brother-in-law and repeatedly beat his former girlfriend, according to the Associated Press.

A VIOLENT PAST, AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Harvard Law School professor Lloyd L. Weinreb, though unfamiliar with the specifics of Pring-Wilson’s case said that the role this new evidence will play in the trial is uncertain, but could give a leg up to the defense if strong enough. The question at the heart of the case is who was the aggressor in the altercation.

“Certainly if there’s evidence that the man whom [Pring-Wilson] killed was violent that would support his story that [Colono] attacked him,” he said.

He did however maintain some skepticism about the significance of the evidence, saying that just because it is ruled admissible and relevant does not necessarily mean that it will strengthen the case.

Assistant Clinical Professor at HLS Alex Whiting echoed Weinreb’s uncertainty as to the effect the new evidence will have on the ultimate outcome of the case, but said that it certainly supports the defense’s claim that Colono was the first aggressor.

“Of course it makes the prosecution’s job harder,” he said “This evidence is obviously helpful to the defense but whether it will make a difference is hard to say.”

In order to counter this new evidence, Weinreb said that the prosecution’s best hope is to keep the jury focused on the events of that night rather than on the larger picture, which is what the defense will be pushing for.

“The jury may decide that it helps them decide or cast doubt on the Commonwealth’s case against the defendant but the jury might decide that these are separate incidents and have nothing to do with it,” he said, referring to Colono and Rodriguez’s prior crimes.

As for the role that Pring-Wilson’s Harvard affiliation may play in the trial, Weinreb said different juries may respond to this fact in different ways. But, he said, it is certainly a point that the prosecution or defense could try to use to their advantage, though he doubted that the Harvard name would hold much sway. Whiting agreed, saying that the media would be much more focused on the Harvard name than the jury.

“For the media that’s one of the interests because it makes the story unusual. For the jury when they are considering what happened that night,” he said. “I don’t see it ultimately having that much of an impact, at least I hope it doesn’t.”

—Staff writer Jamison A. Hill can be reached at jahill@fas.harvard.edu.

FOR MORE INFO:

Jury Selection for Pring-Wilson Trial Begins (Sept. 13, 2004): Jury selection begins in the trial of a Harvard graduate student charged with murdering a Cambridge teen, after more than a year of legal wrangling and setbacks for the defense.

Pring-Wilson Trial Begins (Sept. 21, 2004): Attorneys deliver opening statements in the murder trial of former Harvard graduate student Alexander Pring-Wilson.

Pring-Wilson Jury Hears 911 Tape (Sept. 23, 2004): The prosecution in the first-degree murder trial of former Harvard graduate student Alexander Pring-Wilson offers crucial evidence—a tape of the 911 telephone call placed by the defendant on the night of the alleged murder.

Pring-Wilson Takes the Stand (Oct. 06, 2004): An emotional Alexander Pring-Wilson breaks into sobs and gasps for air for nearly a full minute as he testified during his own murder trial, claiming he acted in self-defense the night he admittedly stabbed Michael D. Colono.

Pring-Wilson Found Guilty (Oct. 15, 2004): After a month-long trial and 21 hours of deliberation, a jury convicts former Harvard graduate student Alexander Pring-Wilson of voluntary manslaughter.

Public Divided on Pring-Wilson Verdict (Oct. 15, 2004) The trial of Alexander Pring-Wilson ends with the conviction of the ex-Harvard grad student for voluntary manslaughter, but in the court of public opinion, the jury is still hung.