After ruling, Rollins pledges review of Gaines case

DA had previously opposed convicted murderer’s release

SUFFOLK COUNTY District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who fought against the release of convicted murderer Raymond Gaines, now says her office is reviewing his case after a judge ordered Gaines’s release amid new evidence that casts doubt on his conviction and on the behavior of Boston police who handled the investigation.  

The issues raised in Mr. Gaines’s appeal require a detailed review and investigation,” Rollins said in a statement released Thursday. “Our review of this case and its complex, 46-year history remains ongoing.” 

Gaines was convicted of murder and armed robbery for the December 1974 killing of Roxbury shopkeeper Peter Sulfaro. 

Gaines, 67, walked free on Wednesday for the first time in nearly 46 years after Suffolk Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee ruled that he had raised enough questions about the evidence used to convict him that he should be let out of prison while his attorney continues to investigate the case and prepares a motion for a new trial. Gaines is being monitored by a GPS bracelet, must abide by a nighttime curfew and travel restrictions, and must check in regularly with probation officials. 

In her statement, Rollins stressed that she has prioritized work related to conviction integrity. “As ministers of justice, it is our duty to ensure the integrity and fairness of every proceeding, and to carefully review and, where necessary, correct injustices of the past.  I created the Integrity Review Bureau, which goes far beyond the work of traditional conviction integrity programs, to do this vital work,” Rollins said. 

But Rollins said her attention continues to be on supporting Peter Sulfaro’s survivors. “We will continue to provide them support throughout this seemingly endless process,” she said in her statement. 

Gaines’s attorney, Merritt Schnipper, who was appointed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Innocence Program, argued in a preliminary motion for a new trial that there were problems with the testimony against Gaines at his trial. According to the motion, two key witnesses have recanted their testimony. One of the investigating officers was found to have improperly pressured witnesses in the notorious Charles Stuart case in 1989. The one eyewitness – the shopkeeper’s son – initially identified two other men in a photo lineup, and only identified Gaines after the police returned and told him he picked the “wrong” men – a problem under today’s evidentiary standards but one the trial judge in the 1970s did not recognize.  

Raymond Gaines, second from right, newly released from prison, poses outside Suffolk Superior Court with his daughter and grandchildren in April 28, 2021. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

In court filings, Rollins had opposed Gaines’s request to be released and argued that he did not have sufficient grounds to appeal for a new trial. Rollins questioned the evidence Schnipper presented. Rollins argued that filings Gaines made previously, when he was not represented by an attorney, imply that he was present during the robbery. She said judges have already ruled that the two recanting witnesses were not credible when they recanted their testimony. She also said the detective’s credibility was questioned during the trial, and another witness confirmed the detective’s statements. 

Rollins has positioned herself as a reformer who has not hesitated to criticize the police. She is also reportedly a leading candidate for US Attorney for Massachusetts under the Biden administration. Should she remain in her current role, her decisions will play a key role in deciding Gaines’s ultimate fate. 

While Squires-Lee allowed Gaines to be released, he has not been exonerated.  

Schnipper has filed a discovery motion seeking more information, primarily from the files of the Boston Police Department, to build his case. He will then file a more complete motion for a new trial. Schnipper has said this could take as long as a year, due to the complexities involved in investigating a decades-old case where many of the witnesses are dead and records have been destroyed. 

It will be up to Rollins whether to oppose that motion, in light of any new information she or Schnipper turn up in their respective investigations. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

If Squires-Lee decides to grant a new trial, it will then be Rollins’ decision whether to move forward with a second trial – which would likely be a tall order given the age of the case. Two of the key Boston police detectives who investigated the case are dead, as are one of Gaines’s co-defendants, and the two men who the police arrested for the murder (then released) before they arrested Gaines. 

Schnipper said in an interview that he remains open to working with Rollins’ office on the case, but he also stands ready to continue to litigate it over her opposition.