Reasonable Doubt

When Cara Rintala was tried in a western Massachusetts courtroom earlier this year for the murder of Annamarie Cochrane Rintala, it marked the first time in state history that a woman had been charged with killing her lawfully wedded wife. But did she do it?

By | Boston Magazine |
cara rintala murder trial

Photo courtesy of The Republican

Whitney asked her, “So what do you think happened?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know…. I feel like you’re pointing your questions at me. Like I had something to do with it.”

“You’re the one who said you’d been fighting all day.”

Cara leaned forward, placed her head in her hands, and cried out, “God! Goddamn! I wish my head would fall off!”

Asked again about what happened, Cara said, “If I had to guess, she fell down the stairs. It was an accident….”

“But her body was in the middle of the basement, not at the bottom of the stairs. And why was the paint spilled?”

“I don’t know!” Cara started to cry. “I haven’t had any support,” she said. “I’m starting to feel like I’m having the finger pointed at me.”

The next day, as Whitney prepared to conduct a second interview with Cara at the district attorney’s office in Northampton, officials received a phone call from David Hoose, the most prominent criminal attorney in western Massachusetts. Hoose said he was representing Cara and did not want her questioned further. No one in law enforcement ever spoke to her again.

Four days after Annamarie’s death, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel announced that Annamarie had been strangled, and that the DA’s office was treating the death as a homicide—the first in Granby in three decades. Less than a week later, Edge, a leading news source for Boston’s gay and lesbian community, reported that “representatives of victim-advocacy organizations expect that [Cara Rintala] will soon be charged with murder.”

From that point on, however, the investigation slowed to a crawl. As spring turned to summer, and summer to fall, there was no arrest. In fact, Cara sold her house in Granby and moved with Brianna to Rhode Island, where her mother and stepfather lived. The district attorney’s office refused to comment about the investigation. Speculation grew that Scheibel, a supporter of same-sex marriage whose election in 1993 had made her the state’s first-ever female district attorney, was reluctant to charge a woman with the murder of her wife.

Eventually, it would fall to someone else to do so. After 16 years in office, Scheibel decided not to run for reelection. When her successor, Dave Sullivan, took office in 2011, he announced that his first assistant district attorney, Steven Gagne, would take charge of the Rintala investigation. Gagne proceeded cautiously, seeking additional evidence to bolster what was shaping up to be an entirely circumstantial case: There were no eye-witnesses, there was no smoking gun.

Finally, in October 2011, more than a year and a half after Annamarie’s death, a Hampshire County grand jury indicted Cara on a charge of first-degree murder. She was arrested in Rhode Island and waived extradition to Massachusetts. At an October 28 bail hearing in Hampshire County Superior Court, Gagne outlined the evidence he would present to a jury.

According to Gagne, Cara and Annamarie’s relationship had been turbulent, marked by mutual charges of physical abuse, 911 calls, and restraining orders. Annamarie’s reckless spending had driven the couple into massive debt. Annamarie had also fraudulently obtained a credit card in Cara’s name and run up charges of $20,000. Gagne then said that two other women who’d been in relationships with Cara had claimed that she’d been abusive.

And there was physical evidence. According to Gagne’s presentation at the bail hearing, Annamarie’s body was covered in Glidden ceiling paint, which is pink when it’s applied but turns white within an hour. The paint was still pink when first responders arrived at the scene, indicating it had just been poured. In addition, Gagne said, state police found Annamarie’s blood on a rag retrieved from a trash can at the McDonald’s where Cara had stopped during her afternoon of errands with Brianna. Gagne also noted how the surveillance cameras had captured footage of the laundry basket and red bag in Cara’s pickup truck, and how those had disappeared by the time she arrived home. Neither the laundry basket nor the red bag was ever found.

Gagne also read a medical examiner’s statement that Annamarie had likely died between noon and 2 p.m.—at least one hour before Cara, by her own account, had left the house that afternoon with Brianna. Add it all up, he argued, and Cara had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to kill Annamarie.

Cara was ordered held without bail at the women’s correctional facility in Chicopee. The next 16 months were consumed by a variety of pretrial motions and hearings. Her trial finally began on February 20 of this year when, in front of a packed gallery, with the overflow standing in the hallway outside the courtroom, Gagne rose to make his opening statement.

It was the first trial in Massachusetts—and possibly the United States—in which a woman stood accused of murdering her lawfully wedded wife. That it took place in the Northampton area, often proudly referred to as “Lesbianville, USA,” was perhaps more a function of probability than irony.

 

Steven Gagne, a native of Leominster, is a 38-year-old Holy Cross graduate who looks 10 years younger than he is. In New Bedford and Fall River, during his eight years as a Bristol County assistant district attorney, he prosecuted people accused of committing many major crimes, including homicide. Outside the courtroom, Gagne is gracious and compassionate, with a quick wit and a droll sense of humor. In front of a judge or a jury, his poise and self-control are impeccable. He is known—mostly by defendants and their lawyers—as an assassin with a choirboy’s face.

At 10:15 a.m. on February 20, wearing rimless glasses and a conservative dark suit, Gagne seemed the calmest presence in the emotionally charged courtroom as he delivered his opening statement. The thrust of his presentation was that the mounting financial and emotional pressures of the marriage—the chronic arguing and persistent physical violence, culminating in Annamarie’s hysteria during her final 12-hour shift at work—caused Cara to snap. The result, he said, was Annamarie’s body “lying on a cold cement floor, immersed in a pool of fresh paint and her own blood.” Cara, he said, “ended the marriage once and for all, with her own two hands.”

An hour later, David Hoose, Cara’s lawyer, rose to address the jury. Hoose, who stands over six feet tall and has a piercing gaze and a powerful voice that he uses to great effect, is an imposing presence in the courtroom. Now 60, he first came to prominence when he served as the defense attorney for Kristen Gilbert, the VA hospital nurse accused of killing patients by injecting them with lethal doses of epinephrine. Although Gilbert was convicted in Springfield federal court in 2001, Hoose was widely credited with saving her from the death penalty.

“I don’t know who killed Annamarie Rintala,” he said, his voice booming across the 70-seat courtroom. He turned and pointed to Gagne. “And he doesn’t know, either.”