‘What’s Next for Me? Life’
LOWELL -- Asking Michael Sullivan what plans he has in the days coming up is met with an immediate and emphatic response.
“Nothing,” the 58-year-old Lowell resident says. “Absolutely nothing.”
“I’m a free man,” he adds. “I’m a free man after 33 years.”
Sullivan’s freedom was taken away when he was convicted in the beating death of 54-year-old Wilfred McGrath inside an East Cambridge apartment on March 7, 1986. Sullivan was 25 when he was handed a life sentence for first-degree murder.
“It was the most horrible feeling you’ve ever had in your life,” Sullivan said. “It was sickening.”
Years later, advanced DNA testing led to questions of Sullivan’s guilt, and a Middlesex Superior Court judge granted him a new trial.
On March 1, the murder charge that plagued the majority of Sullivan’s life was thrown out by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors would have been unable to prove the horrific crime beyond a reasonable doubt after all this time, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a statement.
Before the decision was made official, Sullivan spent 27 years behind bars, then another six years wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet, which limited and monitored his movements.
“What’s next for me?” he said recently from his Gorham Street home. “Life.”
McGrath was killed inside the East Cambridge apartment, owned by Gary Grace, who lived next door to Sullivan. Court records show McGrath was lured to the apartment where he was beaten and robbed of jewelry, cash and cocaine.
McGrath’s killers wrapped his body in a blanket and dumped it behind an abandoned supermarket, where it was discovered 18 hours later, authorities said.
Sullivan has always denied any involvement in the killing, said his attorney Dana Curhan, who has been involved in the case since 1992. Sullivan’s name was given to police by Grace, which led to his arrest.
“Ever since we were kids, we never got along,” Sullivan said about Grace.
Grace, who served as a key witness for the prosecution, had his murder charges dropped in return for his testimony against Sullivan, according to Curhan.
Grace testified Sullivan played a huge roll in the kicking-and-stomping attack against McGrath. His testimony clashed with that of defense witness Emil Petrla. Petrla, without being offered immunity for his testimony, testified he and Grace alone killed McGrath. Petrla claimed Sullivan wasn’t even in the apartment when the murder took place.
A massive piece of evidence -- which sealed Sullivan’s fate -- rested on the cuffs of a jacket owned by Sullivan, according to court documents.
During trial, a State Police crime lab forensic chemist testified the jacket cuffs tested positive for blood, which belonged to McGrath. The chemist also testified that, in his opinion, a hair fragment found in the jacket’s pocket was consistent with the victim.
While Grace received six to seven years behind bars for his testimony against Sullivan, Petrla received a mandatory life sentence for second-degree murder, Curhan said. Petrla’s sentence permits parole eligibility after 15 years, but he has not been granted parole to date, according to Curhan.
Meanwhile, Sullivan spent roughly 27 years in prison before winning a new trial.
That new trial was granted after Sullivan’s jacket was analyzed once again by the State Police crime lab and a private lab in 2011. In both instances, the jacket cuffs screened negative for the presence of blood, court documents state. The cuffs contained a mixture of two DNA profiles, but the private lab excluded the victim as the source of either profile.
As for the hair, established at trial as microscopically consistent with the hair of the victim, Curhan describes that simply as “junk science.”
A motion for a new trial was made by Sullivan’s attorneys in March 2012, and granted by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Judge Kathe Tuttman.
“My view was there was no case after that,” Curhan said. “The case was essentially over, but they kind of danced around with it for 4 1/2 years, and finally dismissed it last week.”
Ryan announced the dismissal of the murder charge against Sullivan on March 1, stating too much time had passed to successfully retry him.
“Given that nearly 33 years has passed since the murder, there has understandably been a diminishment of the health and memory of potential witnesses,” Ryan said. “Additionally, a number of the witnesses who testified at trial have died. As a result, having conducted a thorough review, consonant with our obligations, those facts, coupled with new DNA analysis of physical evidence, establish that the Commonwealth cannot meet its burden to prove the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In lieu of the new trial, Sullivan was released from prison roughly six years ago and forced to wear an ankle bracelet. However, this is the first time he has been allowed unchecked freedom since he was accused of the murder roughly 33 years ago.
“I feel different,” Sullivan said.
Today, Sullivan is unemployed, but he references his oldest brother, who he said owns a trucking company in Marshfield.
Sullivan talks about family often. He has several nieces and nephews. When asked about them, he lists the name and age of each. The 58-year-old uncle mentions missing out on the opportunity to see a few of them grow up. Today he makes sure to see family every day.
What hurts Sullivan the most is the reality that incarceration caused him to miss out on his mother’s funeral, as well as the funerals of three siblings.
“That’s what bothers me the most out of everything,” Sullivan said.
Curhan recently shared a photo of himself and Sullivan standing next to each other the day the district attorney’s office announced the murder charge’s dismissal. Both men are smiling.
“He spent a lot of time in prison,” Curhan said. “It’s a very difficult adjustment getting out, but he’s handled it OK.”
According to Curhan, Sullivan has not expressed bitterness or anger for the imprisonment he endured.
“What he has expressed to me is he’s very thankful for every day he’s out of prison,” Curhan said.
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis.