TAUNTON — Convicted cult killer Carl Drew’s original trial attorney Wednesday denied ever actually witnessing any threats made by prosecutors against his potential witnesses, but said he strongly believed the trial witnesses were lying and that prosecutorial coercion was possible.
John Birknes, a retired attorney whose only murder case in his long career was Drew’s, was called to testify by prosecutors attempting to disprove explosive accusations of prosecutorial misconduct leveled by at least four former trial witnesses.
But summonsing Birknes to the witness stand may have backfired on prosecutors, because much of his testimony seemed to give more credence to Drew’s claims that testimony at his trial was shaped by former prosecutors Ronald Pina and David Waxler.
Drew was convicted in 1981 of the first-degree murder of Fall River prostitute Karen Marsden. The alleged satanic cult leader has insisted upon his innocence for the past 24 years and is now in the midst of evidentiary hearings to determine whether he should receive a new trial.
During the first week of the evidentiary hearings, Maureen “Sunny” Sparda testified that she was threatened by Waxler into not testifying on Drew’s behalf at his murder trial.
Other former prosecution witnesses such as Carol Fletcher and Drew’s co-defendant, Robin Marie Murphy, have made similar claims of misconduct against the prosecutors in the Drew case.
Both Fletcher and Murphy placed Drew at the scene of the macabre Marsden murder during his 1981 trial, but have since recanted that testimony, saying prosecutors told them what to say and when to say it.
Sparda, originally listed as a defense witness to testify in Drew’s favor during his 1981 trial, told the court late last month that Waxler and Pina threatened to have one of Drew’s co-defendants implicate her in the bizarre slaying if she testified in Drew’s favor.
Due to the alleged threats made against her, Sparda exercised her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and never testified at the trial.
But transcripts from the original trial indicate that Sparda’s current claims of prosecutorial coercion are not new claims.
When asked if she would testify, Sparda told the presiding judge, Francis J. Keating, of the alleged threats Waxler made, just prior to her taking the stand.
Although Birknes testified Wednesday that he never witnessed Waxler make the alleged threats, he said Sparda’s claim was consistent with his dealings with Waxler and other prosecutors.
“The threat to Sparda would be consistent with Waxler,” Birknes testified. “Oftentimes, prosecutors have to bargain or offer something and many times that is understood to be a threat.
“I had my own feelings that the witnesses were not telling the truth.”
Birknes also conceded that he considered himself a “real adversary” of Waxler’s.
Assistant District Attorney Kevin Connelly, handling the Drew motion for new trial for the commonwealth, appeared shocked to hear Birknes’ comments.
“Wouldn’t you agree that this type of conduct (by Waxler) would be criminal?” Connelly asked.
“I guess it would, but I’ve witnessed it occur,” Birknes responded.
Birknes went on to say he was “surprised” to hear that Sparda and Carl Davis were both refusing to testify.
Davis was also charged with the Marsden slaying, but his case was never brought to trial.
Birknes said he had information that Davis had confessed to the Marsden murder and was going to testify that Drew did not take part in it.
Drew’s current attorney, Michael Cutler, has asserted in his motion for new trial that Birknes offered ineffective assistance of counsel to Drew at his trial.
He cited the fact that Birknes never tried a murder case before or after the Drew trial, and has also contended Birknes had no knowledge of what his defense witnesses were going to testify to during the original trial.
Cutler also maintains Birknes should have seized on Sparda’s reasons for refusing to testify instead of allowing the alleged threats by Waxler to occur.
Waxler is scheduled to testify during the Drew evidentiary hearings today or Friday morning.