BARNSTABLE – It is often the strategy of a defense lawyer to blame someone else for a crime.
But in a murder trial, it is not every day that the man being blamed is sitting in court watching the trial. Nor is it usual for both sides, defense and prosecution, to point the finger, at one point literally, at the same person.
That is what happened in the recent trial of the Commonwealth vs. John Rams Jr. in which Rams, 41, was being tried for the 2005 murder of Shirley Reine of East Falmouth.
For more on the Reines, see Falmouth’s “Inconvenient Legend”: Melvin Reine Dies
The prosecution alleged that Rams was the shooter, but the person the prosecution implicated in setting up the crime was Todd Reine, the victim’s stepson.
“Though it was alleged that Rams was the trigger man, this murder was set up by others,” Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said after the verdict. In the interview, he did not name Todd Reine or anyone else as a suspect in planning the murder, but he said the investigation into who murdered Shirley Reine will continue.
“There is no statute of limitations on the crime of murder.” O’Keefe said.
Todd Reine did not testify during the trial. Instead, he pled the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination. The day he entered his plea, he decided to sit in on a morning session of the trial, he said. That led to defense attorney Timothy Flaherty pointing Todd Reine out during cross-examination of a witness, with the implication that the prosecution had the wrong man on trial.
In an interview this week, Todd Reine declined to speak about the case.
“My attorney has me under no comment,” he said.
But he said the blame on the part of the District Attorney’s office was nothing new. He has been a suspect since Shirley Reine was found shot to death in her garage.
“It’s been that way for nine years, so nothing’s changed,” Todd Reine said.
At the end of the three-week trial, on April 2, 2014, Rams was found not guilty by the jury, but O’Keefe promised to continue pursuing the person or persons responsible for the crime.
Todd Reine was not the only one to plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying at the Rams trial. His older brother Melvin Jr. also pled the Fifth as did a friend of theirs, Harry “Jay” Pina.
Todd Reine and Melvin Reine Jr. are the sons of Shirley Reine’s husband, Melvin Reine Sr., who died last November. (See related story, “Falmouth’s Inconvenient Legend: Melvin Reine Dies.”) Melvin Reine Sr. spent the last years of his life incarcerated at Taunton State Hospital where he had been sent in 2001 after disrupting a courtroom session at Falmouth District Court.
The owner of a trash hauling business and a convicted arsonist, Melvin Reine Sr. was suspected in a string of crimes in Falmouth, including a murder, two disappearances and the shooting of a Falmouth police officer.
Melvin Reine took up with Shirley when she was a teenager soon after the 1971 disappearance of his first wife, Wanda Medeiros Reine.
Wanda Reine was the mother of Todd and his brother, Melvin Jr.
Rams’s defense lawyer Timothy Flaherty admitted his defense strategy revolved around putting the blame for Shirley Reine’s murder squarely on Todd Reine.
“Absolutely, yes it was,” Flaherty said of the strategy. “It’s not a surprise to anybody. An awful lot of the evidence pointed in that direction. He was a person with motive to commit this crime. He was a person who was, as we call it in legal parlance, a potential third party culprit. There were statements attributed to him, statements of threat. All of these things were very significant to the defense of Mr. Rams and yes, it was part of a strategy. Yes it was.”
The prosecution had a difficult case in proving murder with no murder weapon, no motive, no forensic evidence tying the defendant to the crime scene and jailhouse snitches as the key witnesses.
The Cape & Islands District Attorney’s office has not lost many murder trials in recent years but O’Keefe admitted that the commonwealth’s case against Rams was a challenging one for the jury.
“I think it’s a very hard decision for jurors to make when the evidence is solely from individuals who have the kind of backgrounds these four or five witnesses had,” O’Keefe said.
He explained his decision to take the case to trial. “This case was getting old, if you will,” he said, adding that investigators included Falmouth police, state police and even FBI from Quantico, the behavioral section of the federal crime division.
“You analyze the case in the following way. You make a decision first of all whether or not you believe the person in question was the person who did the actual killing. If the answer to that is ‘yes,’ the next question is, is the case going to get any better with the passage of time and if the answer to that question is ‘no,’ then one must make the decision, do we do this to seek justice for this victim or do we just let it go,” he said. “That’s the process that goes on in a case like this.”
He referenced First Assistant District Attorney Brian Glenny’s opening statement that the witnesses are “not the kind of people you’re going to have over to your house for dinner.”
“That causes difficulties for a jury to have a case with only evidence like that, but sometimes, unfortunately, that’s all the evidence there is,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe said the evidence they had was legally sufficient as determined by the court, so they went forward with the case knowing it would be a difficult one.
“It was just a bridge too far for the jury and we understand that,” he said.
But O”Keefe emphasized the case is not over. “The theory of this case is there is another person or persons who set this murder up and that investigation will go on.”
The jury in the murder trial of John Rams deliberated for two house. When the jury foreman announced “not guilty,” Flaherty said, his client was relieved.
“You can almost imagine the stress a human being is placed under when an accusation of this sort is made against them,” Flaherty said. “That moment he heard the words ‘not guilty’ there was a release of that. . . . I’m happy he was able to stay on his feet and keep his reaction composed.”
Flaherty added, “It’s obviously a very tragic moment for the loved ones of Shirley Reine and all the reminders of her death are difficult for them. I’m mindful of the loss that they’ve suffered.”
Loretta Gilfoy, the victim’s sister, was waiting in the courtroom for the verdict with a friend.
“My heart just dropped down to the ground. I knew. I had that in the back of my mind that this might not be able to go my way,” she said. “I knew from day one they didn’t have any physical evidence, just jailhouse people.”
But Gilfoy pointed out that just because the prosecution’s key witnesses were criminals, it doesn’t mean they weren’t telling the truth. “The bottom line is they said almost the same thing,” she said of the witnesses’ stories that Rams confessed to them about the murder.
Todd Reine and his brother Melvin Reine Jr. both now live in houses that were in their father’s estate and under the control of Shirley Reine before her murder.
Melvin Jr. lives in the main house in the compound. It is the house where Shirley lived since the 1970s with their father. She was found murdered in the garage.
Todd Reine lives in the same compound, two houses away. He lives in the house where he and his brother were raised by their grandmother after their mother, Wanda, disappeared in 1971.
It is the ownership of these properties, as well as a 10-acre site off Old Barnstable Road and their father’s trash hauling business Five Star Enterprises that was the basis for a civil suit that was scheduled to go to court within days of Shirley Reine’s murder.
According to court papers, Todd Reine and his brother Melvin Reine Jr. were claiming that Shirley Reine improperly influenced their father to sign over the property to her when he was not of sound mind and despite an irrevocable trust that left the property to the sons.
In the course of investigating Shirley Reine’s murder, state police came across a Falmouth police report of a theft several years earlier of a safe from Shirley Reine’s home. The safe contained papers having to do with the transfer to Shirley Reine of the trust their father had set up for the brothers. Not long after the theft, Todd Reine and Melvin Reine Jr., referencing the papers, filed the lawsuit against her over the trust.
The district attorney’s office brought the stolen safe case to trial in Barnstable Superior Court in 2007. Rams was found guilty of stealing the safe and Todd Reine was found guilty of hiring him for the burglary. Both served time in prison for the crime.
After that conviction, the district attorney’s office continued to pursue a case against Rams for Shirley Reine’s murder. The prosecution’s version of events was that Todd Reine had again hired Rams for another job, this time for murder.
During the trial about the stolen safe, Rams surprised the attorneys and the court by turning against Todd Reine, saying Reine had hired him to steal the safe.
Speculation in advance of the murder trial revolved around whether Rams would again implicate Todd Reine. But that did not happen.
O’Keefe said of the possibility that Rams might implicate Todd Reine, “You never know what’s going to happen and you never know what might happen in the future.”
During the safe theft trial, some wondered whether Todd Reine paid for Rams’ attorney.
Asked who paid the defense attorney’s bills for Rams’ murder trial, Flaherty said he was not at liberty to say because that information is covered by attorney client privilege.
But he did offer this comment.
“You can probably reach your own conclusion that if a trial lawyer has a certain strategy in a case that is adverse to a party, that a conclusion can probably fairly be drawn that the nature of that relationship is not one that would lend itself to paying for the defense,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty said the prosecution’s case for murder was weak, because of shortcomings on the part of police when they first responded to the crime scene.
“I think there were some problems associated with the investigation from the outset with respect to the lack of forensic evidence and maybe some omissions or mistakes made in the processing of the crime scene when it was first discovered back in 2005.
“But more importantly, I think the commonwealth’s position was that they were relying on some witnesses who came to the case with inherent credibility issues, a long history of baggage and I’m not so sure there was any jury that would have not viewed them the way this trial jury did,” Flaherty said.
O’Keefe said he would not comment on evidence gathering, because it is under the purview of police.
“They generally gather the evidence that’s there. They don’t make it up. Sometimes you’re hampered by a lack of forensic and scientific evidence, but that’s why you go through that laborious process of gathering as much evidence as you possibly can and waiting a reasonable period of time to see if you’re going to be able to gather additional evidence,” O’Keefe said.
Flaherty, who won the case without calling any witnesses for the defense, concentrated on the cross-examination of the government’s witnesses.
“The argument we asserted with all those witnesses was they were unreliable and were seeking to curry favor with the government and making statements that were not trustworthy and I think that was the telling point in the evidence,” he said.
He continued, “Through cross examination, I was able to explore their histories, their backgrounds, their motivations, their biases, prejudices. I think the sum total of all that, the inconsistencies from their statements and the physical evidence that was discovered at the scene . . . I think it became apparent to the jury that they couldn’t rely on that type of evidence, that category of evidence and absent any of that evidence, what the jury was left with were these repeated denials made by Mr. Rams and the absence of any physical forensic, trace, fiber, fingerprint, DNA, blood spatter or any type of evidence that linked him in any way, shape or form to the homicide of Shirley Reine.”
After the jury’s not guilty verdict came in on April 2, Rams, having been incarcerated since 2007, left the courthouse a free man. “He actually left from Barnstable Superior Court with his family shortly after the verdict to get on with the rest of his life,” Flaherty said.
As for Gilfoy, the victim’s sister, she said that with the not guilty verdict, she is going to try to move on with her life too.
“I can’t use up all my energy on it anymore. I’m going to let go, let God and leave it in His hands,” she said. “I just can’t do it anymore. I’m tired. I’m sure my sister will understand.”
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– Laura M. Reckford