Thirty-five years after Burlington native James Rodwell was convicted of the high-profile murder of a Massachusetts police captain’s son, a Superior Court judge is about to decide whether to order a new trial in that case. If he does, Rodwell may walk out of prison after maintaining his innocence in more than half a dozen appeals.
On Wednesday, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Thomas Billings will hear closing arguments in a motion by Rodwell, arguing that the judge should overturn that conviction and grant his motion for a new trial.
In a case largely lacking physical evidence, and with one of the two principle witnesses against Rodwell dead, it’s unclear whether the Commonwealth would pursue a new trial so many years later.
Rodwell was arrested in 1981, and charged with the murder of Louis Rose Jr., the son of a Burlington police captain, who had been found shot in the head in his car more than two years earlier.
Rodwell had been identified as the culprit, police and prosecutors would say, by Francis Holmes, who was facing charges transporting stolen goods when he came forward. Holmes was granted immunity for his testimony.  
Holmes’s testimony, and that of another man, David Nagle, who claimed that Rodwell had confessed to the murder while they were incarcerated together after Rodwell’s arrest, formed the core of the Commonwealth’s case.
The case went to trial. Rodwell pleaded not guilty. The jury disagreed: Six months after his arrest, James Rodwell was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
At the heart of Rodwell’s argument for a new trial is the claim that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. This included an alleged sweetheart deal prosecutors and police had made with Nagle, who was facing serious armed robbery charges himself, in exchange for his testimony. Rodwell’s attorney has also presented evidence arguing that Nagle was a longtime paid police informant, who was working for the police at the time of the trial.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s office, in legal filings in prior appeals, has denied that Nagle was acting as an informant at the time of the trial or acting on behalf of the police.
Rodwell and his attorneys have also attempted to show that prosecutors didn’t just withhold evidence at the time of the trial, but continued to withhold existing and new evidence favorable to Rodwell for decades afterwards, as Rodwell slowly exhausted his legal options.
And to prove its case, the defense has used subpoena powers rare in criminal cases to call to the stand some of the highest-ranking members of the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system, including current and former prosecutors and two former judges.
A spokesperson for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office said that the office does not comment on pending cases.
Attorney Veronica White, who is representing Rodwell, also declined to comment.
Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge criminal defense attorney who represented James Rodwell some twenty years ago, says he believes Rodwell is innocent and is optimistic about his chances for a new trial.
But should Rodwell win, Silverglate said, the court system should then turn its eye to the allegations of improper behavior by prosecutors that form the basis of Rodwell’s motion.
“When a conviction is vacated or reversed on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, witness perjury, things of that nature — I think the system is much too reluctant to then look into that misconduct,” Silverglate said.
“Step one should be getting Rodwell’s conviction vacated … ," Silverglate said. "But then it should really be followed by step two: How did this happen?”
On Wednesday, Billings will hear the last of these arguments, from both sides; he will then review the evidence and issue a ruling.
If the judge grants Rodwell’s motion, the Commonwealth will have thirty days to appeal the decision.
In a recent hearing, the judge indicated that a decision would likely be issued before the end of next month.