State Supreme Court Orders Release of Croteau Murder Documents
By Bill Pomerleau
July 28, 2004
SPRINGFIELD – Ruling on a case that it said “has its roots in suspicions – some proven, some charged, and some more privately held,” the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled July 27 that most of the court records connected to the police investigation of the 1972 murder of Daniel Croteau should be released to the public.
Reversing a ruling by a state Appeals Court judge, the court ruled that Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis was correct when he lifted a longstanding impoundment order on some of the murder investigation documents.
The materials in question were submitted to the courts in 1993 when Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett sought a search warrant to take a sample of then-Father Richard R. Lavigne's blood.
Bennett has tried to link Lavigne’s blood to blood found along the Chicopee river bank where Croteau's body was found.
Documents in the case were impounded in 1996, after Bennett closed the murder case when DNA tests failed to link Lavigne to the crime.
The case was reopened last year when Bennett said he was pursuing more sophisticated DNA testing. Because the case is active, he said information about it should remain sealed.
Lavigne, through his attorney Max Stern, has joined Bennett in defending the impoundment order. But The Republican newspaper and an alleged sexual abuse victim represented by Greenfield attorney John Stobierski under the pseudonym John Doe have argued that the murder case is essentially dead, and cannot be compromised by the opening of files to other attorneys and the public.
Doe has been seeking evidence of sexual misconduct by Lavigne, and evidence that the Diocese of Springfield may have mishandled complaints against the former priest.
At press time, Stobierski had not confirmed if Doe is one of the clients who may be included in a proposed settlement of misconduct complaints against the diocese announced July 22
The church has not been a party to arguments about the murder investigation documents.
In a unanimous opinion, the high court ruled that the appeal court judged erred when he said that the burden of proof rested with The Republican and Doe to demonstrate that circumstances had changed since the files were first impounded in 1996.
It said that Bennett and Lavigne, who bore that burden to prove that the files should still remain secret, had not proven their case.
Noting that “to date, 32 years after the homicide and almost 11 years after the search warrant was issued, no charges have been filed against Lavigne or anyone else.”
Citing Judge Velis, the court agreed that “the long and very public history of the investigation diminished the risk that further disclosure could appreciably alter the outcome of it.”
The court noted that the original impoundment order ran from 1993 to 1996, when the late Superior Court Judge John Moriarty ruled that the early stages of the murder investigation was “more theoretical than real” and ordered the release of the files subject to the redaction or certain personal information.
Appeals Court Judge Elizabeth Porada later upheld in part, and reversed in part, Judge Moriarty’s ruling.
Materials released to the public after Judge Porada’s ruling revealed little about Lavigne’s sexual history. A police log, with redacted names, showed that police had investigated various individuals in connection with the Croteau murder in 1972, but offered little concrete insight into why investigators later focused on Lavigne as their principal suspect.
Responding to a new challenge to the impoundment order mounted last year, the high court ruled this week that the climate surrounding the remaining impounded materials has substantially changed.
It hinted that the materials contain little information about Lavigne.
“In light of Lavigne’s long-known status as a suspect in the investigation into Croteau’s death, the three decades of investigation that have passed, the privacy protection available to individual witnesses through redaction of identifying name and addresses, the climate of broad disclosure of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, the publication of details of the investigation into Croteau’s death that has occurred… the district attorney’s and Lavigne’s interests in continued impoundment, though legitimate, were weakened.”
The court said that if a murder case against Lavigne were ever to go to trial, the voir dire process of selecting unbiased jurors, and a possible change of venue could protect the former priest’s legal rights.
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