SJC overturns first-degree murder conviction of Cara Lee Rintala of Granby 


Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2021 12:00:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The state’s top court has overturned the guilty verdict against Cara Rintala in her wife’s 2010 murder and is ordering a new trial in Hampshire Superior Court.

The Supreme Judicial Court issued the decision Monday following an appeal from Rintala into her 2016 conviction at her third trial related to the March 29, 2010 strangulation and beating death of her wife, Annamarie Cochrane Rintala, inside their Granby home.

“We are overjoyed by the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision reversing Miss Rintala’s conviction,” said Chauncey Wood, the Boston attorney who represented Rintala in her appeal.

In reaching its decision, the SJC concluded that Cara Rintala’s conviction rested heavily on the testimony of an expert witness who “lacked the necessary expertise” to analyze the paint evidence at the crime scene.

Wood said he will move for a bail hearing in Northampton Superior Court, possibly to be scheduled sometime in October. Wood said he will ask that Rintala be released from MCI-Framingham, where she has been held since her conviction, adding that she was previously released for a time following the second trial.

Prosecutors expressed dismay at the ruling.

“We are profoundly disappointed by the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to overturn Cara Rintala’s conviction for murdering her wife,” First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne said in a statement. “However, in doing so, the court once again affirmed that the commonwealth’s evidence was sufficient to permit a jury to conclude — beyond a reasonable doubt — that the defendant strangled her wife to death.”

“The SJC affirmed that this is a solid evidentiary case,” said Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. “This case has been difficult, but we are resolute in seeking justice for Annamarie and her family.”

The first two trials ended in hung juries. At the third trial, Rintala was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rintala has been seeking release from prison pending the SJC’s decision on her appeal. As part of her request for release, Rintala challenged testimony presented by the commonwealth’s paint expert at her trial. Annamarie Cochrane’s body was found doused in paint and prosecutors argued that Cara Rintala used the paint to conceal the crime and contaminate the scene.

David Guilianelli, a paint quality engineer, testified that paint that was found on Annamarie Cochrane’s body had been poured not long before police arrived in an apparent effort to alter the crime scene.

The court cited Guilianelli’s testimony as the tipping point to a guilty verdict and found that he did not have sufficient expertise.

Justice Scott Kafker writes, “We agree that Guilianelli lacked the necessary expertise to perform the paint analysis here and that his testimony lacked the requisite reliability and therefore should not have been admitted. Moreover, because Guilianelli’s testimony was significant and likely swayed the jury’s verdict, we conclude that the error was prejudicial, and we therefore vacate the judgment against the defendant.”

During a meeting at the trial with Judge Mary-Lou Rup in which the jury was not present, Rintala’s defense attorney David Hoose called Guilianelli’s testimony “junk,” and asked that it be struck from the record, adding that it was “pure speculation.” But Gagne appealed to Rup that doing so would be “irreparably prejudicial” to the prosecution’s case.

Wood said the SJC ruling shows that judges need to establish the reliability of expert testimony, and that this was not done in this case.

“Every judge at every level in the system must act as a gatekeeper to review such testimony and determine its reliability,” Wood said.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, Gagne defended having Guilianelli at the trial due to the unique and complex crime scene, saying he was a foremost expert on the paint that was found at the scene. Gagne also defended Rup, now retired, as a trial judge with more than two decades of experience.

However, the SJC called into question Guilianelli’s methodology, writing that “it appears that Guilianelli designed these experiments on his own without any guidance. We are not aware of any case in which expert testimony relating to the drying time of paint in this manner was admitted. This further erodes the reliability of his testimony.”

The SJC did support the prosecution’s use of evidence of marital strife, including the filing of restraining orders against each other and Rintala’s previous arrest on an assault and battery charge.

“The evidence was relevant and admissible to show motive and the hostile nature of the relationship between the defendant and the victim,” Kafker wrote.

Rintala had previously sought a new trial, which was denied in December 2019. She also earlier sought to have her first-degree murder verdict reduced to voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder, which a judge also denied in December 2016.

Wood said Rintala will need a new murder trial lawyer should the case return to court, though he could provide assistance for that counsel.

Gagne, who tried the case with Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Suhl, said they reached out to Cochrane’s family when they learned of the SJC’s decision. Even though a fourth trial on the same charges would be unusual, and Gagne said he can’t remember a previous case he has been involved with, his office is prepared to seek justice again.

“We ultimately think this case should be reached by a jury rather than an appellate court,” Gagne said.

“Even after juries at the first two trials were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, we never wavered in our commitment to pursuing justice for Annamarie Cochrane and her family. Nor do we now. We remain ready for trial.”

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