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Berkshire judge denies call to release William Cascone, who seeks a new trial in a deadly 1984 North Adams arson

William P. Cascone t.jpg (copy)

William P. Cascone takes the stand during his 1987 trial in Berkshire Superior Court. He was convicted but is pursuing a new trial. 

William P. Cascone will remain in state custody as he waits to learn whether he’ll get a new trial, nearly 35 years after a jury found him guilty based on evidence prosecutors now agree was flawed.

Though Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington did not oppose a motion seeking Cascone’s release, a judge this week denied a motion to stay his sentence.

That ruling, by Berkshire Superior Court Judge Michael K. Callan, means the next step will come from prosecutors, who face an Aug. 1 deadline to respond to a motion filed by Cascone’s pro bono legal team nearly a year ago.

Charlotte H. Whitmore, a professor and supervising attorney with the Boston College Innocence Program, said Cascone’s team is hopeful he “will soon be free from the injustice that he has suffered every day that he has been incarcerated, for over 35 years, due to this wrongful conviction.”

Whitmore said her client is “grateful” to Harrington. “For thoroughly reviewing his conviction and for her office’s position that there is no reason for his continued incarceration during that review,” she said.

“We are also pleased that Judge Callan recognized that Mr. Cascone ‘is reasonably likely to succeed on the merits’ of his new trial motion,” she said, adding that the team was pleased the judge does not believe Cascone is a “flight risk” or danger to the public.

Cascone was found guilty in 1987 of arson and second-degree felony murder in connection with a fire in a State Street apartment building that resulted in the deaths of two children and a teenager.

The B.C. Innocence Program argued in a motion filed July 1, 2021, that advances in arson science undercut arguments made at Cascone’s trial about where and how the deadly fire started early on the morning of Oct. 27, 1984.

The question before the judge was whether Cascone’s lawyers had met legal standards for their client’s release in the midst of ongoing efforts to secure a new trial. Those standards require that a motion seeking to stay a sentence consider three things: whether the defendant is likely to be successful in his appeal; meets public security concerns regarding release and is not a “flight risk”; and can be seen to be at risk of contracting COVID-19, according to Callan’s memorandum.

Photo of North Adams.jpg (copy)

More than two years after this Oct. 27, 1984, fire on State Street in North Adams, William P. Cascone was found guilty of arson and second-degree felony murder. He has been imprisoned for 35 years but seeks a new trial. A judge this week declined to allow him to be released pending arguments on motions for a new trial.

Callan’s order notes that he agrees that Cascone’s case meets the first two conditions – that changes in arson science undercut arguments from the 1987 trial and that he is not a flight risk or threat to public safety.

However, Callan found that the B.C. team had not shown that there are sufficient “exceptional circumstances” that warrant a stay of execution of Cascone’s sentence.

“While advancements in arson science rightly may constitute new evidence that warrants a new trial, and while the Commonwealth is right to take seriously the question of whether it could ethically prosecute a new trial (if granted) in light of that evidence, this is not a case that presents such extraordinary and troubling events as, for example, allegations of deliberate prosecutorial or investigative misconduct that call into question the integrity of the process itself,” Callan wrote.

The judge went on to explain his reasoning, in part by pointing to the fact that while Berkshire prosecutors do not oppose the motion to stay, they have said the 1987 prosecution was “conducted in good faith,” Callan wrote.

The judge also noted that both sides have indicated a willingness to cooperate in connection with court proceedings to come. “The court would therefore expect matters to move more swiftly, not less, than in an entirely adversarial posture,” he wrote.

Two weeks ago, Callan told lawyers to get ready. “Everybody make themselves available in July or August,” Callan said at a June 1 hearing. “Because this isn’t going to languish any longer.”

Callan said the issue of Cascone’s possible future exposure to COVID-19 while incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, his home since 1995, “does not tip the scales in favor of a stay in this case,” Callan wrote.

In his decision Monday, Callan again flagged what he viewed as delays by the prosecution in responding to the motion for a new trial.

In a statement Thursday, Harrington’s office said it does not have a unit devoted to reviewing the integrity of past convictions and is “stretching existing staff to carefully investigate and consider the facts and the law pertaining to Mr. Cascone’s conviction.”

“The primary duty of prosecutors is to ensure that convictions are fair,” Harrington said in prepared remarks. “Doing so, in this case, requires that we review a dated and complex investigation and that we are thoughtful in applying emerging case law to the facts of this case.”

Apart from changes in arson science, the B.C. team has argued in its court filings that Cascone’s lawyer failed to provide a proper defense, including making the kind of mistake that a later Supreme Judicial Court ruling, on a different case, would identify as providing legal grounds for a new trial.

The fire tore through dilapidated building at 279 State St. just before dawn, following a night of partying by some tenants, according to accounts at the time.

Though many adults in the building were able to flee or jump from windows, Jeanette Scott’s children — Sandra, 4, and Charlene, 3 — died on an upper floor after an effort to get them out failed. A teen, Brent “Buddy” Tatro, 16, had been sleeping and also perished.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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