Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden said Monday he will not pursue a new trial for a Boston man who was convicted nearly four decades ago of first-degree felony murder but was released from prison last year after the state’s high court found prosecutors withheld important exculpatory evidence during his trial.
The Supreme Judicial Court had ordered a new trial in June for Joseph Jabir Pope, who in 1986 was sentenced to life in prison without parole in connection with a murder in Dorchester. He was released in December while the court heard his case.
Hayden said his office had filed a nolle prosequi Monday, officially stating his intent not to proceed with the case.
“We had a responsibility in this case to look at all available information and evidence with full consideration of all parties involved, including the victim’s family, the trial witnesses, and Mr. Pope. Having done so it is clear to us that moving forward with a new trial is not in the best interest of justice,” Hayden said in a statement.
In an interview, Pope, 70, said he was “elated” by Hayden’s decision to drop the case.
“I’ve been surrounded by family and friends walking on eggshells because tomorrow is not promised to anybody, and they never knew what would be,” he said. “Now people in my family can relax a little bit.”
Pope’s case was featured in a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report in March that looked at people incarcerated for life under now-abolished first-degree felony-murder rules. They are serving the state’s harshest penalty under an interpretation of common law in Massachusetts that says if someone died during the commission of certain felonies, everyone involved is on the hook for first-degree murder.
Pope was accused of participating in the May 23, 1984, armed robbery of Efrain DeJesus, who was allegedly shot to death by a man named Floyd Hamilton. Hamilton was later convicted of first-degree murder in a separate trial.
On Monday, a Suffolk Superior Court judge granted Hamilton a new trial based on a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court finding that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence that undermined the testimony of a key witness in both Hamilton and Pope’s cases.
Pope has maintained that he only accompanied Hamilton to buy drugs, and that there was no intent to rob the dealer, much less kill him. The key testimony against Pope was provided by Efrain Dejesus’s brother, Bienvenido DeJesus, whom the SJC identifies by his nickname, Benny.
In June, the SJC said Pope’s defense should have been provided a report by then-Suffolk assistant district attorney Robert Goodale, who responded to the Dorchester scene the night of the murder and summarized the evidence collected by police.
Goodale noted that a Boston police homicide detective, Peter O’Malley, suspected that Benny was the drug dealer, not his dead brother. O’Malley also said the victim’s girlfriend insisted he did not sell or use drugs, and that Benny had changed his testimony about Pope’s location during the crime.
In a filing on Monday, prosecutors wrote that they could not “adequately investigate or prepare the case for trial without access to the original investigators or investigative materials.” The lead investigators for the homicide unit have since died, prosecutors wrote, and the original investigative file could not be found despite “a thorough search of the Boston Police Archives.”
“Consequently, and due to the passage of time, the Commonwealth’s ability to prove the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt is significantly impaired,” prosecutors wrote.
Pope’s former lawyer, Jeff Harris, said he was not surprised by the district attorney’s decision to scrap the case, “given there was no credible evidence against” Pope.
“The SJC recognized back in June that there was no good evidence against him, and that’s why they vacated [his conviction] in the first place,” Harris said. “This seemed like the only reasonable decision.”
Pope said he has been surrounded by family since his release last year, and on Saturday they celebrated his daughter’s 38th birthday. He said he continues to adjust to life outside prison.
“There are obviously challenges living one way for 38 years and coming out and having to adjust to a new world, having to rebuild my life financially and socially,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s one I’m hopefully up to.”