A jury on Monday convicted a Boston man of involuntary manslaughter for a 2012 shooting that led to a fatal asthma attack.
Michael "Fresh" Stallings, 26, who prosecutors say was a gang member, was accused of opening fire on a group of men on Jan. 23, 2012, on Blue Hill Avenue. No one was hit by the bullets, but Kelvin Rowell, 40, suffered an asthma attack and collapsed while fleeing from the gunfire. Rowell was taken to Boston Medical Center where he lapsed into a coma and died on March 5, 2012. The death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.
In an unusual legal case, Stallings faced a first-degree murder charge for the asthma death — and life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted on that charge. But a Suffolk County Superior Court jury — after just over a week of testimony and about three days of deliberations — decided on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
"This jury weighed the evidence, found the facts, and applied the law," Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement. "When you open fire on a busy street without warning or provocation, you're responsible for what happens next."
Stallings was also convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm, but was acquitted of two counts of armed assault with intent to murder for allegedly firing at two other men who survived.
Stallings' attorney told The Boston Globe he will appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction.
The 2012 incident was described as gang-related by prosecutors, who said Stallings recognized another man at the scene as a rival gang member. Rowell was a bystander, according to the Suffolk County DA's office.
The Legal Rationale
Prosecutors went for the first-degree murder charge under the theory that Stallings' actions set off a series of events that led to Rowell's death.
Specifically, prosecutors looked to two decisions by the state Supreme Judicial Court in pursuing the charges, as noted in a 2013 release on Stallings' indictment. One case was the 1997 decision in Commonwealth vs. Santiago, which said “the defendant’s acts need not be the sole or exclusive cause of death.” The other case was the 1980 decision in Commonwealth vs. Rhoades, which said evidence of proximate cause is sufficient when a defendant’s acts “in the natural and continuous sequence, produced the death, and without [them] the death would not have occurred."
At trial, defense attorneys called the murder charge a stretch, arguing that someone else opened fire first, The Associated Press reported.
Legal observers said the verdict shows the jury did not agree with the prosecution's theory for first-degree murder.
"It comes down to the elements of involuntary manslaughter, which still requires an unlawful killing but could be unintentionally caused by wanton or reckless conduct," said attorney Mark Smith, who runs a criminal law practice in Boston. "I think that’s what [the jury] focused on rather than finding proximate cause of the shooting leading to the asthma attack."
Others said they believe the jury's decision in the unique case — where first-degree murder was sought after an asthma death — was more consistent with the crime.
"They [the jury] weren’t willing simply to take the inherent dangerousness of the act and have that sort of be an umbrella for the defendant to be found guilty of the crime that they really felt wasn’t proven," said Brad Bailey, a defense attorney and former state and federal prosecutor.