Saturday, 2:15 PM
Once accused of crime, Boston man returns to defending
By John R. Ellement, Globe Staff
LAWRENCE -- Gary Zerola, the Boston man twice acquitted of date rape charges, said today said he finds its "exhilarating'' to be back in a courtroom as an lawyer, not a defendant.
"I believe that it was a good experience for me,'' said Zerola, a foster child picked as a top bachelor by People Magazine in 2001 but then became the subject of critical news stories after he was charged with raping two women. "I wouldn't want to do it again. And I wouldn't wish it on anybody else.''
But then he added, "I certainly still have faith in the system. I'm a testament that the system works. With all its frailties and flaws, the system works and it works well.''
Zerola, a former prosecutor in both Essex and Suffolk counties, was tried twice in Boston in early 2008 and was acquitted by juries after the women testified and after Zerola also took the stand in his own defense. Charges involving a woman in Florida were dropped by authorities after the woman's account was found to contain key flaws.
Zerola returned to practicing law in the spring of 2008, but has not had a major case to be part of until his long-time friend, attorney Michael F. Natola, asked for his assistance as Natola defends Kathleen Hilton for allegedly setting a Lynn apartment building on fire in 1999, a fire that killed three children and two adults.
Hilton has been in custody since 1999 shortly after the fire as a result to time-consuming psychiatric examinations and hard fought litigation that twice landed before the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest.
Natola said he had three reasons for turning to Zerola: He always believed in his friend's innocence, and he noted that Zerola was acquitted.
"Third, he's my friend,'' said Natola, a Boston attorney. "I wanted to give him a chance to be involved in a major case, to help him, for lack of a better way of putting it, to get back into the flow of things in a big way. And it doesn't get any bigger than this.''
Natola is Hilton's court appointed attorney and as such cannot pay Zerola. Moreover, under court rules, Zerola cannot question any of the witnesses in the case, which is expected to last four weeks in Essex Superior Court.
But both men expect to finish the trial together. Both say they believe in Hilton's innocence and are determined to convince the jury to acquit her of second degree murder and arson charges she now faces.
Said Zerola: "Being accused of crimes I know in my heart, I did not commit, I see her (and) I sympathize, I empathize. That's why I said I would help out. I will put my heart and soul and all of my energies into making sure that Mrs. Hilton is exonerated.''
The trial, with opening statements from the attorneys and Essex prosecutors, begins today.