PORTLAND — The Supreme Judicial Court on Monday threw out a former Pennsylvania man’s murder conviction, saying the judge erroneously barred evidence to rebut the prosecution’s theory that the killer acted out of jealousy.
Thomas Garrett, 24, was convicted last year and sentenced to 35 1/2 years in prison in the November 1995 knife slaying of his friend Robert Riley, 26, outside the Auburn Mall.
Garrett’s lawyer, William Maselli of Auburn, applauded the supreme court’s decision and said he would seek a hearing to have his client released on bail.
Attorney General Andrew Ketterer said the state intended to retry Garrett on the murder charge and did not believe that the excluded defense evidence was sufficient to sway a jury toward an acquittal.
“We had a compelling case before, and I believe we still do,” he said.
The defense maintained that Garrett was trying to walk away from Riley after the two had an argument in the mall parking lot, but Riley suddenly approached him from behind. Garrett said he turned around to confront Riley and accidentally stabbed him in the neck with a kitchen knife concealed in a cereal box.
While ruling that there was sufficient evidence to sustain a murder conviction against Garrett, the supreme court set aside the judgment because of a ruling on the admissibility of evidence offered by the defense.
The prosecution argued that the killing was intentional and that Garrett was jealous because Riley was having a sexual relationship with the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, identified only as Carrie.
In an attempt to disprove that theory, Garrett sought to introduce evidence that Carrie had sexual relationships with two of his other friends, and his knowledge of those relationships did not affect those friendships.
The supreme court agreed that the trial judge’s exclusion of that evidence denied Garrett the ability to contradict the state’s theory that he killed Riley out of jealousy.
The state maintained that the evidence was irrelevant because Garrett was upset that Riley and Carrie failed to tell him about their relationship, rather than by the affair itself.
But during the trial, the high court said, the prosecution insinuated that the stabbing may have been motivated by that relationship and by Garrett’s desire to get back together with Carrie.
The slaying occurred within a year after Riley and Garrett had moved to Maine from Keystone, Pa., to escape violence, according to friends and relatives.