Peter A. Reilly Trial: 1974 & 1976

views updated

Peter A. Reilly Trial: 1974 & 1976

Defendant: Peter Reilly
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Catherine Roraback
Chief Prosecutor: John Bianchi
Judge: John Speziale
Place: Litchfield, Connecticut
Dates of Trials: Trial: February 28-April 12, 1974; Appeal: March 25, 1976
Verdict: Guilty of manslaughter in first-degree; conviction reversed on appeal
Sentence: More than 6 but no more than 16 years

SIGNIFICANCE: Peter Reilly was convicted on the basis of a confession he made to police after eight hours of questioning. He later recanted the confession, and after extensive community effort, he appealed for a new trial based on new evidence. His petition for a new trial was granted, but the state never brought him to a second trial and he was thus exonerated.

On the night of September 28, 1973, Barbara Gibbons of Canaan, Connecticut, was brutally killed at her home. Her throat was slashed, almost severing her head, and her legs were broken, apparently after she was killed. There was evidence she had been sexually molested. There were multiple cuts to her body, and the bedroom was splashed with blood. Peter Reilly, her son, claimed that he returned home from a teen center meeting and found his mother on the floor of her bedroom, covered with blood and breathing with difficulty. He placed several phone calls, first for an ambulance, then for a doctor, and finally to a hospital. The hospital notified police, who arrived at 10:02 p.m. Reilly explained to the police that after leaving the teen center meeting, he drove a friend, John Sochocki, to his home, then arrived home between 9:50 and 9:55, discovered his mother, made the calls, and waited for the police.

A Son Confesses

State police who questioned Peter Reilly immediately suspected him because he appeared to express no grief. The fact that he claimed to have found his mother alive, and that her legs were apparently broken after she died, raised police suspicions about his involvement. But when police examined him, they found no blood on his clothes or on his body. After his explanation to the police, he was held overnight, then interrogated at state police Troop B in North Canaan on the following morning. Police then took him to Troop H in Hartford, Connecticut, for a polygraph test.

Reilly requested the test in the apparent belief that its results would clear him of any suspicion. However, he had had no sleep the night before, and as the questioning wore on for more than six hours on September 29, he eventually agreed with the police that he might have killed his mother but then blocked the event from his memory. His interrogation was recorded, and later transcripts revealed that although he was not intimidated or threatened physically, he became more and more confused and eager to please his questioners during the lengthy process. Several times the police informed him that he had a right to an attorney, but he did not insist on one.

Following the long hours of interview, he developed a confession, which he signed.

Jury Opts for Manslaughter

While awaiting trial, Peter Reilly recanted his confession and sought legal assistance. Community support for his cause developed, and as news of the case spread, a number of authors and other celebrities in Connecticut provided financial support. Among his notable advocates were William Styron and Arthur Miller.

At a pretrial hearing, Judge Arthur Armentano ruled that the confession and selections from the tape-recorded interrogation could be admitted as evidence.

At the trial before Judge John Speziale, deputy state medical examiner Ernest M. Izumi described the extensive wounds to Barbara Gibbons. He also testified that it would be possible to inflict the injuries without being spattered with blood. The prosecution established that Reilly sometimes quarreled with his mother, and other witnesses testified that Reilly showed no apparent grief. His confession and excerpts from his statements to the police were introduced. Neither the defense nor prosecution could clearly establish the time sequence of events between the adjournment of the teen center meeting at 9:15, and the phone call from the hospital to the state police at 9:58. The defense introduced several witnesses who saw Reilly at the teen center as late as 9:30, and also John Sochocki, who agreed that Reilly had driven him home, leaving him there at about 9:45.

The jury found it difficult to reach a conclusion, and spent more than 15 hours deliberating the case over a period of two days. They asked several times to have segments of the trial transcript read back. Judge Speziale urged them to reach a unanimous decision, telling the jury to make their own judgments while considering what the majority is deciding. Reilly was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to prison for a term of six to 16 years.

New Evidence Results in Reversal

Community supporters remained convinced that Reilly was innocent, and that his original confession was the result of an impressionable and inexperienced young man led by suggestive police questioning to falsely incriminate himself. A later review of the lengthy transcripts of his interrogation supported this interpretation. Joan Barthel, a journalist who helped bring statewide and national attention to Reilly's cause, included much of the transcript in a book detailing the case.

The support group continued to widen, and the broadcast of a documentary on CBS television brought even more support. An appeal was mounted on three grounds: two citing new evidence, and one contending that the state failed to provide exculpatory material, records, and evidence at the original trial. The full transcript of the interrogation was part of that material. Attorneys for Reilly in the appeal were T.F. Gilroy Daly, Robert M. Hartwell, and John Fiore.

Judge Speziale heard the appeal and rejected the claim that the state had failed to provide exculpatory material at the original trial. But Speziale accepted that the new evidence justified overturning the original verdict. The crucial new evidence consisted of a fingerprint that pointed suspicion at two other individuals, Timothy and Michael Parmalee. At the original trial, Sandra Ashner had claimed that Michael Parmalee was with her on the night of the murder, but in April of 1975 she said she had originally lied, and that Parmalee was not with her. Furthermore, the first person that Peter Reilly called on the night of the murder, Marion Madow, stated that he had called her during a certain moment of the television broadcast of the movie, Kelley's Heroes. CBS television was able to determine that that portion of the movie aired at precisely 9:50 p.m. This helped establish the time sequence, raising serious doubts whether Peter Reilly would have had time to commit the crime before calling for help. Since he had dropped off Sochocki at 9:45, and it took five minutes to drive to his home, it seemed evident that he made his first call for help immediately upon arriving home, leaving no time for him to have committed the crime.

Expert testimony from Dr. Herbert Spiegel suggested how Peter Reilly could have been led to confess, due to his difficulty of "integrating a concept of self." Reilly had been unable to distinguish between a statement and an assertion or a question, and could easily be led to accept as a fact something he knew nothing about.

Judge Speziale ruled that the new expert testimony, the fingerprint evidence, and the newly established evidence regarding timing were all sufficient to suggest that an injustice had been done in the original trial. He also ruled that none of that evidence could have been obtained by the defense counsel through due diligence in the first case. Since all three new pieces of evidence would establish a reasonable doubt as to Reilly's guilt, on March 25, 1976, he therefore ordered the release of Reilly pending a new trial. The state of Connecticut never attempted to bring another prosecution and Reilly remained free.

In later years, Reilly became active in popular efforts to question police interrogation methods.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Reading

Barthel, Joan. A Death in Canaan. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.