Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley has called for a new hearing and has pushed back against the sudden reversal of a 20-year-old murder conviction that freed two defendants long sentenced for their role in killing a young woman in Chelsea in 1993.
A key in the reversal, which came by the Supreme Judicial Court earlier this month, was DNA evidence done some years after the case had been put to bed. A decision by the SJC in 1997 affirmed the convictions of Michael Cowels and Michael Mims in the stabbing murder of Belinda Miscioscia. Some time after that 1997 decision, the DA’s office agreed to do DNA testing on blood and bodily fluids associated with the case – a routine matter when it relates to evidence used prior to the advent of DNA testing.
In 2011, based on the results of that test, the defendants called for a new trial. The trial judge, however, denied the request.
The SJC this year decided to take up the case once more, and focused on a towel that was used as evidence in the trial and that was tested for DNA. Blood on the towel was discussed at the original trial, but it was pointed out at the time that the blood type did not match the defendants. The SJC seemed to center their reversal on the DNA testing that showed the blood on the towel belonged to a cooperating witness, Robert Salie, who owned the apartment where the defendants went before and after the murder.
Conley said what was not concentrated on was DNA evidence from a vaginal swab of the victim that revealed bodily fluids from Mims, a piece of evidence that was not used in the original trial.
The new round of DNA testing showed, primarily, two things: first, that blood on a towel found at a witness’ home did not belong to the defendants, and second, that DNA recovered from inside the murder victim’s body could only have come from Mims – proving that he had sex with the defendant shortly before she died, as was alleged in the original trial.
“What the high court misses in its decision is that both of these findings are completely consistent with the testimony at trial,” said Conley. “A key civilian witness testified that the defendants went into his bedroom with the victim to have sex shortly before the murder. That witness had no way of knowing that, 20 years later, DNA evidence would prove this account to be true. A key expert witness testified that the blood on a towel seized from the witness’ home tested positive for Type A blood when both the defendants and the victim had Type O blood. As the trial judge noted, defense counsel vigorously pressed this point during cross-examination and closing argument.
“If the case went to trial today, the towel would not be part of the evidence, but the DNA from the victim’s vaginal swab would,” Conley continued. “The swab, which directly implicates Mims and strongly supports the witness who testified against him and Cowels, is of far greater value than the towel, and we expect to raise this issue with the SJC in a petition for re-hearing.”
During the trial, there was very little physical evidence, and most of the case was built upon the testimony of the cooperating witness, Salie.
Miscioscia was found stabbed to death with a bag of marijuana in her shirt in an industrial lot behind a building once used by the Chelsea High School for storage.
The facts of the case at trial detailed that the victim went to buy marijuana from Cowels at a party.
On Saturday, June 26, 1993, the victim was socializing at her brother’s home in Chelsea with her brother, her brother’s girl friend, and a friend with whom she had made plans for the evening. After drinking a few beers, the four decided to “pitch in” on a bag of marihuana, and the victim “paged” Cowels, from whom she previously had made similar purchases. After an initial effort to connect with Cowels at a neighborhood store failed, the victim again paged him and made arrangements to meet him at a party down the street from her brother’s house. Although she said she was afraid to meet with Cowels by herself, the victim left her brother’s home between 8:45 and 8:55 p.m. and walked, alone, down the street to the party. When she failed to return home after about one and one-half hours, the others became anxious and attempted to contact Cowels by paging him several times. Eventually, the victim’s friend left, assuming that he had been stood up, and the others went to bed.
At the party, the victim met Cowels and Mims, with whom she was also familiar. Both defendants had had previous sexual encounters with the victim. The three left the party and went together to an apartment where a friend of the defendants, Robert Salie, lived. The four shared a marijuana cigarette. Both defendants and the victim went into Salie’s bedroom and engaged in sexual intercourse, offering Salie a chance to join in, which he declined. The victim and the defendants subsequently left Salie’s apartment and drove away in Cowels’s automobile.
Some time later, around 11:30 p.m., Salie testified, Cowels and Mims came back to the apartment and knocked on the door. When the witness let them in, the two men rushed to his bathroom and came out with their clothes in plastic bags. They suggested to him that they had killed Miscioscia and they told the witness they would hurt him if he didn’t keep the matter quiet. Investigators in Chelsea at the time didn’t take long to connect the dots to the witness and Mims and Cowels. Investigators found towels in the apartment that had bloodstains on them. It was impossible at the time, though, to know whose blood it was.
In the SJC reversal, the court found that the bloodstain on the towel was likely a factor in the jury’s verdict and reversed the conviction.