The three men convicted of murdering Andrew P. Puopolo '77 in 1976 will receive new trials after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided Thursday the prosecutor violated the Commonwealth constitution in the 1977 trial.
Puopolo died 31 days after he was stabbed Nov. 16, 1976 in Boston's Combat Zone, where he and teammates on the football team were celebrating the end of the season.
The seven-man court decided unanimously Thursday that Leon Easterling, Richard Soares and Richard S. Allen, who are all serving mandatory life sentences, did not receive fair trials because the assistant district attorney, Thomas L. Mundy Jr., misused peremptory challenges.
Peremptory challenges allow attorneys to reject usually up to 16 potential jurors without giving a reason for the dismissals.
The court's decision establishes an important precedent in state law formerly, there were no restrictions on attorneys' right to reject potential jurors because of their race.
Federal legal precedent, based on the United States Supreme Court ruling in Swain vs. Alabama (1965), still allows lawyers to consider race in jury selection in federal courts.
"If the decision goes against Swain then it's good. The case is one of the abominations of American constitutional justice," Alan M. Dershowitz, professor of Law, said Thursday.
Several Harvard students and Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, testified in the early 1977 trial, where defense counsels implied jury bias against the three black defendants.
Mundy used peremptory challenges to reject 12 of the 13, or 92 per cent, of the black jurors whom the trial judge found fit to serve. He eliminated 34 per cent of the white jurors on challenges.
Henry F. Owens III, Allen's lawyer, called Judge Paul J. Lincos's 41-page majority opinion "a landmark decision, the first time in the history of the Commonwealth that our supreme judicial court has said that a peremptory challenge to exclude blacks systematically violates the constitution."
Owens added that he would ask an appelate court to release Allen on bail next week.