Retrial Begins for Former Student

Three years ago, 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, Pring-Wilson has another chance to prove his innocence.

Sitting expressionless in a nearly empty courtroom yesterday, Pring-Wilson, now 29 years old, listened attentively at the beginning of his retrial at Middlesex Superior Court. Yesterday marked the start of jury selection for the trial, which will last until Dec. 7.

The trial marks the latest development in the four-year saga that began with a chance encounter between Pring-Wilson, then a master’s degree student in Russian and Slavic studies, and the now-deceased Michael D. Colono.

According to his defense attorneys, Pring-Wilson acted in self-defense when he stabbed Colono five times in 70 seconds outside a Western Avenue pizza parlor in 2003. Pring-Wilson was convicted and sentenced to six to eight years in prison in 2004.

But five months after the conviction, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 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, but a judge later overturned Pring-Wilson’s conviction and called for a new trial.

With the admission of the new evidence, the jury 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.

A VIOLENT PAST, AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Alex Whiting, an assistant clinical professor at the Law School, said that while the impact of the evidence is unclear, it appears to support 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 the new evidence, Whiting said that the prosecution’s priority should be 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.

Harvard Law School professor Lloyd L. Weinreb, who was not familiar with the details of the case, said he was skeptical about the significance of the new evidence, saying that just because it was ruled admissible and relevant does not necessarily mean it will strengthen the case.

In the original trial, the jury was only allowed to hear details on 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.

While 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 stab his brother-in-law and repeatedly beat his former girlfriend, the Associated Press reported.

The case has also brought to light town-gown tensions given Pring-Wilson’s Harvard affiliation and Colono’s working-class background.

Weinreb said different juries may respond to Pring-Wilson’s Harvard affiliation 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.”

—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.