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SJC rejects murder appeal

Conviction in 2002 Truro rape, killing is upheld

Christopher M. McCowen was convicted in November 2006. Christopher M. McCowen was convicted in November 2006.
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / December 11, 2010

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The state’s highest court upheld yesterday a trash collector’s conviction in the notorious rape and murder of a fashion writer on Cape Cod, but the new chief justice wrote that he wished the trial judge had questioned jurors more searchingly about potential racial bias after the verdict.

In a unanimous vote, the seven-member Supreme Judicial Court rejected the appeal of Christopher M. McCowen, formerly of Hyannis, who was convicted of raping and fatally stabbing Christa Worthington in 2002 in her seaside house in Truro. The 46-year-old woman’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter was found clinging to her half-naked body, but was unharmed.

McCowen, who picked up trash weekly from Worthington’s house, was arrested more than three years after the killing as a result of DNA evidence. The case drew international attention, spawned a book (a second is expected to be published next year), and sparked debate about racial attitudes after McCowen’s lawyers contended that jury deliberations were tainted by racism. McCowen is black, and Worthington was white.

McCowen’s lawyers raised at least seven issues on appeal, ranging from the judge’s refusal to move the trial, despite intense publicity, to the dismissal of a juror during deliberations. The SJC rejected all of them.

“After a complete review of the record, we find no basis on which to reduce the degree of guilt or order a new trial,’’ Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote on behalf of the court.

The ruling was notable for a concurring opinion by Roderick L. Ireland, the newly confirmed chief justice, The sole black to serve on the high court, Ireland wrote that Barnstable Superior Court Judge Gary A. Nickerson appropriately held an unusual two-day public hearing 14 months after McCowen’s November 2006 conviction.

Nickerson interviewed a dozen jurors about several allegations of racial bias during deliberations. One allegation said that a white female juror referred to McCowen as a “big black man,’’ spurring a confrontation in the jury room with an offended black female juror.

Nickerson ultimately ruled that the juror’s remark was an innocent description and rejected the request for a new trial.

Ireland said he did not disagree with that decision. But he said he would have interviewed jurors more thoroughly about allegations that the white juror also questioned the black juror about her hairstyle and level of education, in what the black juror described as a snide manner.

Further questioning, he said, “would have given context and insight into whether’’ the questions were “simply small talk or indicative of implicit bias.’’

McCowen’s lawyer, Robert A. George of Boston, said he was very disappointed by the ruling and now plans to file a suit in federal court arguing that McCowen’s imprisonment violates his constitutional rights.

The new chief justice’s concurring opinion, he said, actually bolsters McCowen’s argument that he did not get a fair trial.

“I’m telling you, it’s not over,’’ George said.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe said in a statement that the ruling was “entirely consistent with the overwhelming evidence in this case and the manner in which the trial was conducted.’’

Worthington, a world-traveling writer who was educated at Vassar, was found inside her house by a former boyfriend on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002. She had been stabbed to death and bludgeoned, and authorities believed it happened some time between Friday night and Saturday at noon.

The murder was the first in Truro in more than 30 years and led to a highly public 39-month criminal investigation. The investigation included a controversial dragnet in early 2005, when authorities asked men in Truro to voluntarily provide DNA samples. Between 150 and 200 men complied.

In April 2005, more than a year after McCowen had provided a DNA sample and been interviewed twice by investigators, authorities matched him with DNA found at the crime scene and arrested him.

During a six-hour interview with investigators, he first denied ever being inside Worthington’s house or speaking with her, according to the SJC ruling. But when he was confronted with the DNA match, he said, “It could have been me.’’

He then told the officers that he had gone to Worthington’s house with a friend, Jeremy Frazier, and had consensual sex with her, according to the ruling. But when she spotted his companion going through her belongings, McCowen told investigators, she began screaming at Frazier and an argument erupted. Frazier, he said, began to beat her, and McCowen joined in. Frazier stabbed her in the chest, McCowen told investigators.

At McCowen’s trial, Frazier denied having anything to do with the crime.

McCowen was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated rape, and burglary and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Apart from McCowen’s appeal, his defense team asked Nickerson for a new trial in October after alleging that the current chief medical examiner, Dr. Henry M. Nields, falsely testified at trial about his credentials.

Dr. Stanton C. Kessler, a former acting chief medical examiner, alleged in court documents that Nields never completed a fellowship program that Nields cited as a credential. Nields denied the allegation, and state public safety officials released documents that contradicted the accusation.

Nickerson put off ruling on the motion for a new trial until after the SJC decided McCowen’s appeal.

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.