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Though granted new trial, Harvard student far from being cleared

By Lisa Sweetingham
Court TV

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(COURT TV) -- Former Harvard grad student Alexander Pring-Wilson was ordered to be released from prison Friday. But he's not going home anytime soon, and with a lengthy appeals process and retrial ahead, he is far from being home-free.

Pring-Wilson was convicted last year in the stabbing death of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, teenager. He was granted a new trial Friday by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Regina Quinlan based on a recent higher court decision that allows defendants who claim self-defense in murder trials to bring in evidence about the victim's alleged history of violence.

On Monday, Quinlan ordered the 27-year-old to be released July 1 from Bay State Correctional Center on $400,000 bail. His pending freedom has a few conditions.

The Colorado resident may not leave the state of Massachusetts without the court's permission; he must surrender his passport; he will be electronically monitored on house arrest and may only venture out for attorney or doctor visits; he must submit to random drug and alcohol testing; and he must check in weekly with the probation department.

"We're thrilled with having won a new trial and a bail order," defense attorney E. Peter Parker said. "We're not thrilled with the conditions of his bail."

Prosecutors announced that they intend to appeal the judge's retrial order.

Pring-Wilson was found guilty in October of voluntary manslaughter for the April 2003 death of 18-year-old Michael Colono.

The district attorney pushed for first-degree murder but, after deliberating 21 hours over five days, jurors voted for the lesser-included offense, saving the Harvard student a life sentence.

"The power that a white, smart man with money has is quite disturbing. I understand money is power, but money should not define justice," Colono's sister said during a tearful statement to the court minutes before the judge handed down a sentence of six to eight years in prison.

Colono's family did not return calls for comment, but upon learning of the retrial order, his brother told the Associated Press that they were disappointed by the judge's decision.

"What bothers me most is that I understand we're starting from scratch," Marcos Colono said. "We can't change this insult to justice but, you know, we fight it."

The jury foreperson also expressed her disappointment and said that new evidence about Colono's violent past would not have affected the panel's decision.

"The piece we kept coming back to is that Michael was stabbed five times with a pretty big knife in some pretty significant spots on his body," Carol Neville told Courttv.com. "That didn't line up with Alex's saying he was on his knees fighting for his life."

Another juror, Rob Tolantino agreed. "To me," Tolantino said, "what was important was that 70 seconds."

Brief, deadly encounter

In the early morning hours of April 12, 2003, Alexander Pring-Wilson and Michael Colono crossed paths on a rain-slick street in Cambridge.

Just 70 seconds passed between the time Colono cracked a joke about the "sh--faced" college student and the time Pring-Wilson's 4-inch pocket knife fatally sliced into Colono's heart.

Colono was a high school dropout with a graduate equivalency degree and three arrests by the age of 18. At the time of his death, friends say, he was turning his life around. The father of a 3-year-old daughter, Colono had a job as a cook at a restaurant along the Charles River.

Pring-Wilson was a well-traveled honor student who spoke several languages, planned to attend law school in Colorado after completing his final year at Harvard, and had barely a blemish on his record. He was arrested once for streaking -- a college prank. The charges were dismissed.

During his turn on the stand, Pring-Wilson testified that he pulled his blade on Colono in self-defense after the teen and his cousin, Samuel Rodriguez, repeatedly beat him in the head with their fists.

But the jurors didn't buy it.

"I remember that the bloodstains on his pants didn't match up with him being on his knees," Neville said. "And there was only the one injury to his head."

"Why didn't he scream, shout, yell -- do something?" juror Tolantino said, adding that the fact that Pring-Wilson initially lied to police about his involvement only heightened the appearance of deception. "The claim was self-defense, but I needed more to really fall in line with that."

Pring-Wilson bested Colono by seven years, 4 inches and 20 pounds. Rodriguez told jurors that, by the time he got out of the car to come to his cousin's aid, Colono had already been stabbed five times.

Pring-Wilson said Colono and Rodriguez attacked him first.

But the defense was not allowed to introduce evidence of Colono's propensity for violence, including an arrest for malicious destruction of property stemming from a clash at a pizza restaurant in 2001 when he threw money in the face of a cashier and kicked a front door, shattering the glass.

According to court documents, Colono also was belligerent with police during a trespassing incident, and "threatened to have his 'Lion Boys' take the police 'out.'"

The defense was only allowed to read the facts of Colono's 2001 conviction for possession of a controlled substance to the jury during trial.

Jurors also were told that Rodriguez had three assault and battery convictions and that police came to his home the night of the murder on a domestic violence call.

Further evidence of both men's propensity for violence may not have made a difference in the verdict, however.

"We knew that neither Michael Colono nor Mr. Rodriguez were solid citizens, so I don't think anything they did would have changed my decision," said Neville.

Pring-Wilson's defense attorney obviously disagrees.

"It's one thing to know Michael and Sammy were hotheaded, and it's another thing to know the things that Sammy did," Parker said. "I think this evidence was so important because a jury has to evaluate how Sammy said the fight unfolded -- and what he said doesn't make sense."

Judge reverses herself

Pring-Wilson's retrial order came on the heels of a March 14 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on another self-defense murder trial also presided over by Judge Quinlan.

The defendant in that case, Rhonda Adjutant, was a professional escort who found herself in a deadly confrontation with a drug-addled client who came after her with a crowbar when he learned that he was only getting a massage and an hour of her company for the $175 he had just paid.

Adjutant said she stabbed Stephen Whiting in the neck with the razor from his cocaine stash in self-defense.

Typically, a victim's history of violent behavior is admissible if the defendant had knowledge of the victim's character at the time of the confrontation. The reasoning is that it may support the defendant's claim that she had good reason to fear for her safety and use a certain degree of force in protecting herself.

But Adjutant, like Pring-Wilson, did not know the victim and Quinlan did not allow such evidence in either case.

The higher court determined that jurors should have heard about specific acts of violence in Whiting's past because that could have shed light on who was the first aggressor the night of his death.

Harvard Law professor Carol Steiker, a former public defender who now specializes in criminal procedure, thinks the higher court's decision was sound but complicated.

"I think people's first reaction in [Pring-Wilson's] case is, of course you'd want to know about the violent past of the victim," Steiker said. "But they would also say that you would want to know the same about the defendant."

Shortly after the Adjutant conviction was overturned, Quinlan acted on her own to set aside Pring-Wilson's conviction.

"The defendant Pring-Wilson was deprived of evidence that went directly to the heart of the case's central dispute," Quinlan wrote in her June 24 decision. "The court finds that, although the evidence was legally sufficient to warrant the verdict against the defendant, the integrity of that verdict is suspect where the jury did not have the benefit of relevant evidence critical to the issue of whether the defendant was the aggressor or whether he was acting in self-defense."

A new trial and a new jury may bring a new decision. But with an appeals process under way, both families must play a tedious waiting game before getting a second shot at justice.

"My immediate thought when I heard about this," said Neville, "was that I felt really badly for the families, for this whole thing to be reopened -- all the wounds, all the thoughts, all the memories."

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