Coakley seeks to reverse ‘flawed' decision

Posted
Friday, July 10

LEE -- The attorney general is seeking to keep Michael O'Laughlin, convicted of beating a Lee woman nearly to death in 2000 but exonerated last month by a federal court, behind bars.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley has asked all six judges of the First Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the three-judge opinion that concluded there was insufficient evidence to justify the jury's guilty verdict.

Calling the three judges' decision "fundamentally flawed," the attorney general argued in a petition to the First Circuit that the jury was presented ample -- though circumstantial -- evidence to convict O'Laughlin of beating Annmarie Kotowski in her Fox Hollow apartment in the early morning of Nov. 17, 2000. If the full panel of judges agrees with the prosecution, O'Laughlin's verdict and sentence would be reinstated.

The attorney general's request was filed on June 30. The court has not yet responded; it can grant the hearing -- known as an "en banc" review -- or deny it. If it denies the appeal, the state's last resort would be to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Meanwhile, O'Laughlin, 41, remains in prison. His attorney, Kenneth I. Seiger, said he has filed a request for bail but does not expect the court to act until it has responded to the attorney general's appeal.

O'Laughlin, formerly of Lee, was convicted in 2002 of beating Kotowski and sentenced to 35 to 50 years in state prison. His conviction was overturned by a state appeals court but then reinstated by the Supreme Judicial Court. O'Laughlin then made his successful appeal to the federal courts.

The prosecution argued that O'Laughlin was using crack cocaine on the night of Nov. 16, 2000, but ran out of drugs and money. His phone records showed a panicked series of phone calls to several drug dealers that apparently failed to yield more cocaine.

O'Laughlin worked at the Fox Hollow complex and had a master key, which the prosecution said he used to enter Kotowski's apartment, planning to steal money to buy more drugs. But Kotowski must have awoken and O'Laughlin, scared of being caught, beat her nearly to death with an aluminum baseball bat, shattering bones in her face and leaving her unable to remember the events of that night.

A neighbor heard Kotowski screaming and called the police. When officers arrived, they found O'Laughlin -- dressed in nothing but boxer shorts -- outside by a dumpster, where he said he had heard a trapped animal. The police left, and Kotowski wasn't found until the morning.

Investigators found a baseball bat with O'Laughlin's name on the handle in the woods about 25 yards from the crime scene, but they found no physical evidence that definitively tied that bat, or O'Laughlin, to the beating.

The defense argued that the absence of physical evidence was significant. Though Kotowski's bedroom was covered in blood, none was found on O'Laughlin, in his apartment, on the bat or anywhere else. And while O'Laughlin's motive was supposedly robbery, nothing was taken from Kotowski's apartment, including jewelry that was sitting in plain sight and more than $500 in cash.

The defense argued that Kotowski's estranged husband, David, was a better suspect: He had recently learned that his wife was having an affair with another man. The couple separated before the attack and, five days before the assault, Annmarie began discussing divorce.

Officers searched David's car and found towels matching those in his wife's apartment, reeking of bleach. The prosecution, however, said police thoroughly investigated David and cleared him.

Now, the attorney general is arguing that the appeals court misinterpreted the evidence and the law, setting a troubling precedent that would deprive juries of their due deference.

By dismissing the motive and concluding that the savage beating was inconsistent with a perpetrator seeking money, the judges exceeded their authority, deciding matters that must be left to a jury, the attorney general said.

Among their many mistakes, the attorney general wrote, the judges tried to minimize the significance of O'Laughlin's master key and ignored the telephone records that proved O'Laughlin was awake in his apartment just moments before the crime. The upstairs neighbor who called police said he did not hear a car enter or leave the apartment complex until the officers arrived.

"The totality of the circumstantial evidence supported a reasonable inference that O'Laughlin entered the victim's apartment using his master key in search of money to buy drugs, and, in the process, he awakened the victim and beat her with a baseball bat to subdue her," the attorney general wrote.

To reach Jack Dew: jdew@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6241.


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