Massachusetts SJC throws out 1970s murder conviction

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The Supreme Judicial Court threw out a 1970s murder conviction on Tuesday, ordering a new trial for a man jailed over a strangling death in Dorchester based on newly uncovered evidence in the decades-old case.

Anthony Mazza was convicted in 1973 of first-degree murder and robbery in connection with the strangling death of Peter Armata. He appealed for a new trial six times over the past 35 years, all unsuccessfully — until now.

The Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday vacated Mazza’s murder and robbery convictions, sending his case back to Suffolk Superior Court for a new trial.

The state’s highest court sided with Mazza based on “newly discovered evidence” from affidavits showing the state’s key witness “admitted to lying about the defendant’s involvement in the victim’s death,” as well as a “recently discovered” 1972 witness statement to police.

Justice Kimberly Budd wrote in the court’s decision, “We conclude that the witness statement constitutes newly discovered evidence that ‘would probably have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberations.’ “

The initial 1970s case against Mazza “almost exclusively relied” on testimony from Robert Anderson. At the time, Anderson said he allowed Mazza to use his apartment and went out for the night, returning home at about 2:45 a.m. to find Mazza “standing over the body of a man Robert had never seen before” with the victim’s pants pockets turned inside out and Mazza saying “there had been a struggle.”

But the new evidence — a witness statement that Anderson’s youngest brother, William, gave to police in July 1972 — “attributed certain inculpatory statements and actions to Robert.” There was no evidence showing the youngest brother’s statement was included in the original trial, Budd said.

“The theory of the defense was that Robert was the killer,” Budd wrote. “William’s statement provided details that would have strongly bolstered that theory because it demonstrated that Robert had control over the victim’s body and belongings, and had a plan for disposing of the body.”

Budd also said cross-examination of Robert Anderson at the time showed inconsistencies.

She said the “case against the defendant was far from overwhelming. Robert, an admitted participant in handling, controlling, and plotting to dispose of the victim’s body, was the only witness who maintained that the defendant was guilty of murder.”

Given the “weaknesses” in the state’s case and likelihood the youngest brother’s statement could have played a significant role in the jury’s deliberations at the time, Budd said there is “a substantial risk that the jury would have reached a different conclusion had the evidence been admitted at trial.”