The Massachusetts Appeals Court on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling that had granted a new trial to a gang member convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting into a crowd in Dorchester, an act that caused a person with asthma to die after running from the scene.
The nine-page ruling from the appeals court reinstated the 2015 conviction of Michael “Fresh” Stallings, 29, who’s currently incarcerated at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
Stallings, reportedly a member of the H-Block street gang, was convicted at trial in Suffolk Superior Court, where prosecutors said he was targeting rivals when he fired into a crowd on the night of Jan. 23, 2012.
A 40-year-old bystander who was unaffiliated with gangs, Kelvin Rowell, ran from the gunfire and collapsed from a severe asthma attack. He died several weeks later at Boston Medical Center.
Rowell’s mother, Frances Rowell-Darden, said Wednesday by phone that she was glad the appeals court reinstated Stallings’ conviction. She said she still struggles to cope with the loss of her son, whom she described as a “gentle giant.”
“For me as a parent, a part of your heart goes away,” she said. “No parent should have to bury their child in a senseless death like he experienced. . . . When holidays come around, his birthday or family gatherings, it’s definitely hard not to hear him in his cheerful way.”
Judge Edward P. Leibensperger presided over the trial and sentenced Stallings to six to eight years in state prison. But Leibensperger later granted Stallings’ motion for a new trial, on the grounds that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance by failing to seek a self-defense instruction for the jury, records show.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the appeals court rejected Stallings’ argument, finding that his trial lawyer made a strategic decision to attempt to prove that another man fired at Stallings first.
Stallings was represented at trial by Stephen J. Weymouth, a prominent Boston defense attorney.
“As [Weymouth] repeatedly argued in summation, if the Commonwealth failed to prove that the defendant was the first shooter, the jury had to find the defendant not responsible for Rowell’s death,” Wednesday’s appellate ruling said.
By contrast, the appeals court said, a self-defense argument would have required Weymouth to show that Stallings “availed himself of all means to avoid physical combat” before opening fire.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, the judge found that the defendant initially began to retreat by ‘[running] away from the shots’ . . . but then ‘turned to shoot back towards the source of the shots so as to provide cover as he ran away,’ ” Wednesday’s ruling said. “There was no evidence, however, that [the other gunman] . . . fired additional shots or that he pursued the defendant.”
The appeals court said that because the “causation theory” of the other man shooting first “would have resulted in acquittal if successful, it was rational for counsel to not also pursue a theory of self-defense, given its shared factual premise but potential pitfalls.”
The three appeals court justices named in Wednesday’s ruling were Diana Maldonado, William J. Meade, and Sookyoung Shin. The opinion did not specify an author.
Prosecutors had sought a first-degree murder conviction at trial, which would have carried a life sentence. Jurors instead convicted Stallings of the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter and acquitted him of two additional counts of armed assault with intent to murder. He was also convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm.
Weymouth told the Globe shortly after the verdict that he thought he “proved to the jury beyond any doubt whatsoever that a person other than Michael Stallings shot first.” Weymouth added that the manslaughter conviction “doesn’t make any sense, based on the facts of the case and their verdicts on the other charges.”
On Wednesday, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley welcomed the appeals court ruling.
“Neither the facts nor the law warranted a new trial here,” Conley said in a statement. “The defendant received a fair trial with the assistance of highly effective counsel. The trial jury found that a person who opens fire on a busy street without warning or provocation is responsible for what happens next, and the Appeals Court’s decision was the right one.”
Stallings’ appellate lawyer didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
The appeals court ruling also addressed Stallings’ argument that he deserved a new trial because Leibensperger improperly suggested to jurors that they “had to reach a verdict.” Mistrials are declared when juries are hopelessly deadlocked.
During the Stallings trial, the appellate ruling said, jurors asked Leibensperger on day three of deliberations, “What if we truly cannot come to a unanimous agreement?”
Leibensperger replied that “the law requires that you do come to a unanimous agreement, the unanimous agreement of not guilty or unanimous agreement of guilty. And I encourage you to continue your deliberations, to listen to one another and to reach a unanimous verdict as you feel is appropriate. So I’m going to send you back to deliberate now at this stage.”
On Wednesday, the appeals court said that while Leibensperger’s phrasing was “not ideal,” there was no “substantial risk” that he “coerced the jury into returning a verdict.”
The ruling noted that Leibensperger instructed jurors before the start of deliberations that they should “ ‘reach a verdict if [they could] do so in good conscience’ but ‘should not surrender [an] honestly held conclusion simply to arrive at a verdict.’ ”Travis Andersen can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.