AP / File Pool Photo
The state’s high court today upheld the murder conviction of Christopher M. McCowen, the trash collector found guilty of raping and murdering Christa Worthington inside her Cape Cod home in 2002, a crime discovered by a neighbor who found Worthington’s daughter huddled next to her mother’s body.
McCowen was linked to the murder of 46-year-old Vassar College graduate by DNA samples more than two years after the killing. During questioning by State police assigned to Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s office, he allegedly told investigators that he had consensual sex with Worthington.
The case drew international attention, spawned at least two books and sparked debate on Cape Cod about racial attitudes after McCowen’s defense team claimed racial animosity among jurors fueled the conviction of their African-American client. Worthington was white.
Today, however, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously said they have reviewed the trial, and concluded McCowen's guilt was established by Barnstable prosecutors.
"We affirm the convictions and the judge's denial of the motions for a new trial,'' Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the unanimous court. "After a complete review of the record, we find no basis on which to reduce the degree of guilt or order a new trial.''
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice-designate Roderick Ireland said the conviction should be upheld but added that he was haunted by the racial issues that surfaced among jurors. He suggested that judges in similar cases should probe for signs of “unconscious racism.’’
Fourteen months after McCowen's November 2006 conviction Barnstable Superior Court Judge Gary A. Nickerson held an unusual two-day public hearing to interview a dozen members of the jury about several allegations of racial bias.
The allegations included that a white juror referred to McCowen as a "big black man" during deliberations, spurring a confrontation in the jury room. Ireland wrote that a woman juror, who is a minority, was asked about her hairstyle and education level during deliberations.
“It would have been informative to know whether Juror A was the only juror asked about her level of education,’’ Ireland wrote. “If she were the only one, it would have raised a red flag for me, as it apparently did for Juror A…Because of unconscious racism, it is the subtle clues that help give a judge insight into a juror's true feelings.''
Ireland, who will become the first black to lead the SJC and the state court system, added "unconscious racism could affect the outcome of trials.’’
McCowen's lawyer, Robert A. George, of Boston, said he was ``very disappointed'' in the ruling.
George said he and planned to challenge the conviction by filing a suit in federal court claiming that his client's imprisonment violates McCowen's constitutional rights.
Although Ireland wrote a concurring opinion, George said, the new chief justice's comments actually bolster McCowen's claims that he did not get a fair trial.
``I'm telling you, it's not over,'' George said.
McCowen’s defense will also focus on a challenge to the professional qualifications of the state medical examiner’s office, an issue that Nickerson has been weighing while the SJC was reviewing the entire trial.
The slain woman's daughter, Ava, was unharmed, and has since been raised by friends of the slain fashion writer who had the child with a Provincetown man, Tony Jackett.
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