The highest court in Massachusetts on Tuesday reversed the murder conviction of a former New York banking executive accused of fatally stabbing his former girlfriend on the exclusive island of Nantucket.
The Supreme Judicial Court ordered a new trial for Thomas Toolan III, ruling that he was denied his right to a fair trial because of improper screening of the jurors. All of the jurors came from the insular community of Nantucket, which has fewer than 11,000 year-round residents. Many had direct or indirect connections to the victim and her family, the court said.
Toolan was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the October 2004 stabbing death of Elizabeth Lochtefeld. He was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison.
It was the first murder on the island in more than 20 years and drew intense media coverage from two island newspapers and national media, including a cover story in a national magazine and a "true-crime" book written about the case.
Although the court said the detailed and often lurid elements of the case that appeared in the media were not the reason for the reversal, they played a role by possibly influencing jurors.
The court said "the circumstances were such that for any particular prospective juror, the risk of bias was high. Pretrial publicity was extensive, and it was at times prejudicial to the defendant's anticipated theory of defense."
The court said "it was essential that the judge carefully assess whether each juror could be impartial. The judge failed to meet this obligation."
Six seated jurors, two of them alternates, were never questioned by the judge about their exposure to publicity in the case, according to the decision.
Toolan's trial attorneys did not dispute that their client killed Lochtefeld, but said he was not criminally responsible because of mental illness caused by his addiction to alcohol.
"The media's discussion of the defendant's theory of defense at trial could have left readers with the incorrect impression that the defendant carried the burden of proving his lack of criminal responsibility at trial, and a heavy burden at that," the court wrote.
Toolan's lawyer filed a motion to have the trial moved, but it was denied.
"This case never should have been tried on Nantucket in the first place," James Sultan, Toolan's attorney said Tuesday. "People on the jury were never asked whether they were exposed to all the unfairly prejudicial publicity in the case."
Sultan expects the new trial to be held off the island, but that would ultimately be up to the new judge. The trial judge has since retired.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said he was "disappointed" for the victim's relatives.
"This is what results from the media taking these tragic cases and turning them into entertainment for the masses," he said. "This is what happens with extensive, salacious and in some cases erroneous pretrial publicity."
O'Keefe said he has talked to Lochtefeld's family but would not discuss what was said.
The relationship between Toolan, then 37, and Lochtefeld, 44, had all the hallmarks of a fairytale romance. The two successful business people were introduced to each other through a mutual friend during Labor Day weekend on Nantucket in 2004. They alternated visiting each other in Nantucket and Manhattan, but things quickly turned sour.
Lochtefeld, upset with Toolan's drinking, flew to New York in late October to end the relationship.
According to court documents, Toolan flew to Nantucket days later, rented a car, bought two knives and killed Lochtefeld at her bungalow.
The medical examiner said she died of multiple stab wounds to the chest and back.
Toolan was arrested driving through Rhode Island.
Lochtefeld grew up in Peekskill, N.Y., and spent her childhood summers on Nantucket. Her parents and brother still lived there at the time of her slaying.
After moving to New York City, she started a consulting business to help architects cut through the city's building regulations. Her business flourished into a multimillion dollar company.
In 2004, Lochtefeld sold her business and moved to the vacation haven.
Toolan, a Columbia University graduate, had worked as a banker at Smith Barney and Citigroup, but had struggled with alcoholism. He was fired by Citigroup in 2001 after being arrested for trying to take an $80,000 marble bust from an antiques show. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
This program aired on August 23, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.