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?

cara rintala murder trial

Top: Cara Rintala with her defense attorney, David Hoose. (Photo by Landov) Bottom Left: Steven Gagne, the prosecutor. (Photo by Kevin Gutting, courtesy of Daily Hampshire Gazette) Bottom Right: Judge Mary-Lou Rup. (Photo by Landov)

Gagne brought up the frenzied, tearful 911 call Cara had made in May 2009: “She ended it by saying, ‘I need help.’ But the police couldn’t give her any help.” And if Cara had been that desperate in May 2009, Gagne said, how much closer to her breaking point would she have been almost a year later? Annamarie was spending money faster than they could earn it, and was threatening to take Brianna away. Gagne posited that, after the long night of hysterical texting back and forth, Annamarie came home from work and the fighting continued. At some point, he said, Cara pushed her wife down the basement stairs.

Now, Gagne said, “Things have gone too far.” Annamarie lay hurt, bleeding from the head, “stunned, defenseless, unable to fight back.” Cara, he said, knew what would happen if Annamarie recovered: the call to 911, another charge of assault and battery, and this time, surely, the Department of Children and Families would take Brianna.

So, Gagne said, Cara made the decision to strangle Annamarie. “After 10 seconds, Annamarie is unconscious,” he said. “Four and a half minutes later, she’s dead. Four and a half minutes where Cara could have stopped, could have changed her mind. It didn’t need to come to this. It did not need to come to this. But on March 29, 2010, after two and a half years of a very turbulent and violent and unhealthy relationship, a nerve was struck. And Cara Lee Rintala flipped…. This woman sitting right here committed murder…. It didn’t need to come to this. But it did.”

 

Judge Mary-Lou Rup spent 90 minutes instructing the jury. “It is not enough for the commonwealth to establish a probability, even a strong probability, that the defendant is more likely to be guilty than not guilty,” she said. “That is not enough. Instead, the evidence must convince you of the defendant’s guilt to a near certainty; a certainty that convinces your understanding and satisfies your reason and judgment as jurors who are sworn to act conscientiously on the evidence. This is what we mean by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The jury deliberated for an hour that day, and for all of the next, a Friday, without reaching a verdict. Nor did they reach a verdict on Monday. Inside the jury room, no one argued that Cara was innocent, but six jurors felt that Gagne had failed to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On Tuesday, they replayed the recording of Rup’s reasonable-doubt instruction three times. Two jurors reluctantly conceded that their doubts were probably not “reasonable.” That made eight for conviction, but four—two men and two women—held firm on their belief in reasonable doubt.

On the jurors’ fourth full day of deliberation, they sent Rup a note asking if they could return to the courtroom and listen to her read the reasonable-doubt instruction again, as if from her body language or intonation they might glean meaning or guidance not contained in her original words. She read it again, and they listened. It changed nothing.

In Hampshire and Franklin counties, 98 percent of criminal trials that reach the point of jury deliberation result in verdicts. Almost always, the 12 deliberating jurors will eventually reach a unanimous decision. But at 3 p.m. on March 13, the jury told Rup that they were hopelessly deadlocked and further deliberation would not help. Rup declared a mistrial and sent the jurors on their way.

Less than two weeks later, Rup denied bail for Cara, meaning she will remain imprisoned in Chicopee until her case can be retried. That’s not expected to be until next year, because David Hoose is already fully booked for the remainder of 2013. Brianna, now six, is living with Cara’s mother and stepfather in Rhode Island.

 

After the trial, I contacted all of the jurors. Most declined to talk, but I did speak to one of the four jurors who would not vote to convict. She was a high school teacher. “Why didn’t the police investigate Oleksak more?” she asked. “He changed his alibi.” She echoed Hoose’s point that cat hairs were found on Annamarie’s body the same day Oleksak bought a sack of kitty litter.

But Annamarie’s mother had testified that Annamarie and Cara had owned two cats the previous year. And Annamarie’s Uncle Pat told me later that Oleksak, in fact, didn’t own a cat. Oleksak told Uncle Pat that he’d bought the litter because oil was seeping from the base of his furnace, and he wanted to pour an absorbent on it to make it easier to clean up.

In The Origins of Reasonable Doubt, the Yale Law School professor James Q. Whitman writes, “The ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard was not originally designed to make it more difficult for jurors to convict. It was designed to make conviction easier, by assuring jurors that their souls were safe if they voted to condemn the accused…. It was the product of a world troubled by moral anxieties that no longer trouble us much at all…. We are asking the reasonable doubt standard to serve a function that it was not originally designed to serve, and it does its work predictably badly.”

At Cara’s next trial, which is expected to take place early next year in Hampshire County Superior Court, in Northampton, two things seem certain: First, as Massachusetts law requires, the trial judge will once again instruct the jurors as to the meaning of reasonable doubt, which will likely serve only to confuse them.

Second, Steven Gagne will make it clear whether or not Mark Oleksak owned a cat.

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