Almost 14 years after a dramatic and highly-publicized murder trial on the Vineyard, the case was revisited Thursday in the Edgartown courthouse.
The subject at hand was a hearing on whether to have a new trial for Troy A. Toon, a Boston man who was convicted in June 1999 for the murder of Gary D. Moreis. Attorneys for Mr. Toon are requesting a new trial based on alleged problems with jury selection during the first trial. The hearing was not completed Thursday and will continue later this month.
A well-known Oak Bluffs resident, Mr. Moreis was 37 when he was stabbed after a July 1998 fight with Mr. Toon, then 24, on Warwick avenue in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Moreis later died in a Boston hospital. His family’s grief was compounded when Mr. Moreis’ father, Peter A. (Peter Pop) Moreis, a well-known Island figure, had a fatal heart attack while rushing to see his son.
Mr. Toon was found guilty in 1999 of second degree murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a knife) and sentenced to life in prison. His case was the first murder trial on the Vineyard in more than two decades, and the first murder conviction on the Island in 59 years. The five-day trial was dramatic at times, with prosecutor Michael O’Keefe, now Cape and Islands district attorney, showing Mr. Moreis’ blood-stained clothing to the jury. Mr. Toon’s defense argued a claim of self-defense.
Mr. Toon has been serving his sentence at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Ceder Junction in Walpole. But on Thursday he was back in Edgartown, as were members of his family and the Moreis family. While neither attorney— Dana Curhan for the defendant and Cape and Islands assistant district attorney Lisa Edmonds for the commonwealth — made any arguments before the judge, the seven witnesses called to the stand were asked to focus on the courtroom conditions on the day the trial started, June 1, 1999, and on the jury selection process for that case.
The Hon. Gary A. Nickerson, associate justice of the superior court, is presiding over the hearing. The original judge Hon. John A. Tierney has retired.
Mr. Toon’s mother, aunt and two grandmothers took the stand for the defense Thursday, each saying that when they arrived at the courthouse on June 1, they were not allowed into the courtroom. They recalled that a court officer told family members they were not allowed in for jury selection, and the family waited outside the courthouse before going into the courtroom once the trial got underway.
“I didn’t understand why we had to wait outside. I really didn’t understand that,” Constance Toon, Mr. Toon’s grandmother, said.
During cross-examination from Ms. Edmonds, family members were asked to recount the details of the trial, from what ferry the family took to the Island to where they sat in the courtroom and what the weather was on June 1. They recalled it was a warm day and the courtroom was full of people, from press to onlookers. Some questions they couldn’t answer clearly, noting that it had been nearly 15 years.
Clerk of courts Joseph E. Sollitto, normally on the job during superior court proceedings, took the stand for the commonwealth. He recalled that 60 jurors were brought in for the trial on the Tuesday after Memorial Day. In response to questions, he said there was a lot of traffic and noise coming from outside the courtroom which did affect the ability to hear what was going on.
Ms. Edmonds asked about the weather, and whether there was air conditioning. “We don’t have air conditioning in this room,” Mr. Sollitto answered. “Then we only had a few fans.”
Thursday’s hearing also took place on a warm May day, with windows open. Proceedings were sometimes drowned out by church bells and lawn mowers.
At one point, Judge Nickerson described the courtroom layout for the record, noting that six to seven people could sit comfortably on the benches.
During jury selection, Mr. Sollitto recalled jurors were asked a panel of questions. Those who answered yes to any of them were taken aside for further questioning to determine if they would be removed from the jury pool. Judge Tierney asked the individual questions in the judge’s lobby, accompanied by the defendant, the court stenographer, and counsel for both sides.
In response to questions from Ms. Edmonds, Mr. Sollitto said he didn’t recall that the proceedings were moved because of noise in the courtroom, but rather because the judge felt there was no reason for everyone in the courtroom to hear jurors’ responses.
Mr. Sollitto said he never asked anyone to stay out of the courtroom.
Two former court officers, Debra Manley-Smith and Peter Look, also took the stand for the commonwealth.
Mr. Look, now retired, recalled a crowded courtroom, and said that as the supervisor, he would have known if someone was asked to leave the courtroom. He said he did not recall excluding anyone from proceedings.
The commonwealth said they had another witness to call at a later time, and rescheduled the hearing for a future date.
This isn’t the first time the verdict has been revisited. In 2002, the state appeals court rejected an effort to retry the case, after Mr. Toon’s attorney argued that the jury instructions were erroneous regarding self-defense. The court said based on testimony in the trial, Mr. Toon’s actions did not entitle him to a self-defense instruction to the jury, and the judge did not err in his actions.