WOONSOCKET — Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early, Jr., on Tuesday announced he would be dropping all charges against a Taunton man imprisoned for 35 years for the murder of his great aunt in Milford as a result of new DNA evidence showing a former city man’s involvement in the crime.
Gary Cifizzari, out on personal recognizance with GPS monitoring in light of the DNA evidence supporting his innocence since July, will not face a new trial after Early announced all the charges against him were being dropped in the “interest of justice.”
Cifizzari had been convicted along with his late brother, Michael Cifizzari, in the brutal murder of their great aunt, Concetta Schiappa, 75, in her Milford home in September, 1979.
But the DNA testing conducted by Early’s office at the request of the Innocent Project found DNA samples taken from Schiappa’s nightgown actually belonged to former Woonsocket resident, Michael J. Giroux, who is believed to have been in Milford at the time of murder and was even a one-time person of interest questioned by the police following Schiappa’s death.
A reported substance abuser with frequent run ins with the police, Giroux was charged by the Woonsocket Police along with two other men in the shooting death of Peter Zmetra in January of 1991. Zmetra had been collecting rents from his apartments in the city when he was confronted by his assailants, shot and killed outside a Carnation Street residence.
Giroux eventually pleaded to charges of second degree murder and conspiracy in connection with Zmetra’s killing. He died in July, 2014, while again a resident of the city.
The formal exoneration of Cifizzari follows the state’s DNA testing of evidence in the case sought by his attorneys from the New England Innocence Project and its finding that he was not involved in the assault of the victim.
The case against Cifizzari had been based on an admission made by his brother, a mentally troubled man known to suffer from schizophrenia, when he went in to the Milford Police Station in 1981 and later implicated Gary Cifizzari while being questioned.
The state’s case against Gary Cifizzari included testimony from dental experts at his 1984 trial who linked him to bite marks found on the victim’s body. An expert involved in the case later recanted that portion of the state’s evidence against Cifizzari.
Early’s office said the decision to drop the charges still pending against Cifizzari was made after additional DNA testing results were received.
The motion for post-conviction DNA testing had been filed by the Innocence Project in 2017 and at that time, Schiappa’s nightgown had been the only piece of evidence tested and resulting in the exclusion of Cifizzari as suspect.
The second round of testing identified DNA from Mr. Giroux on one additional item and several other items came back inconclusive. No additional DNA testing linked Mr. Cifizzari to the crime, Early’s office stated on Tuesday.
Schiappa’s murder and sexual assault had been described by prosecutors in court as “brutal” and “vicious,’’ during which the victim was bitten several times and assaulted with a mop handle.
After receiving the additional testing results, the District Attorney’s Office filed a “Nolle Prosequi” motion which in effect ended the agency’s bid to prosecute Cifizzari under the initial motion for a new trial that had resulted in his release from prison in May on the new DNA evidence.
“I’d like to thank our prosecutors for their hard work on this case,” Early said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The conviction was obtained using bite mark evidence and one of the experts who testified at trial has since recanted his testimony. The Nolle Prosequi speaks for itself,” Early said in the statement.
“This is no longer a viable case to prosecute. Our interest is and always will be in fair trials and the proper administration of justice,” Early said.
The Nolle Prosequi filing in Worcester Superior Court noted that when Gary Cifizzari was arrested in 1983, “DNA testing as an investigative tool was not yet available-- forensic testing at that point in time was very limited.”
“Recently obtained DNA results on evidence from the crime scene were matched to another individual, Michael Giroux,” the motion states.
Gary Cifizzari, the motion states, “was convicted based largely on bite mark evidence obtained from the crime scene. However, one of the three Commonwealth experts on bite mark evidence who testified at Gary Cifizzari’s trial in 1984 has recanted his testimony, and now supports Gary Cifizzari’s request for a new trial,” the motion states.
“Consequently, the aforementioned evidence leads the Commonwealth to determine that Michael Giroux perpetrated this brutal murder, and a Nolle Prosequi of Gary Cifizzari is in the interests of justice in this case,” the motion concludes.
The New England Innocence Project subsequently issued a statement noting that the state had in effect dropped its case against Gary Cifizzari in Schiappa’s killing.
“Exonerations are always bittersweet,” said Radha Natarajan, co-counsel for Cifizzari and Executive Director of the New England Innocence Project.
“During 35 years of wrongful imprisonment, Gary Cifizzari endured so much and lost so much. But today, he finally receives the justice he deserves and can celebrate the freedom he has again,” Natarajan said.
“Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case – and lessons from it – can prevent future injustices,” Natarajan added.
Another of Cifizzari’s attorneys, Kirsten Mayer, Ropes & Gray litigation and enforcement partner, said the New England Innocence Project was “thrilled that Mr. Cifizzari was rightly exonerated today.
“No one should spend decades behind bars for a crime they did not commit,” Mayer said.
“We commend the Worcester District Attorney for assenting to our motion for a new trial and concluding that the charges against Mr. Cifizzari should be dropped in the interest of justice,” Mayer added.
The decision comes following a May 31, 2019, motion by the New England Innocence Project and a pro bono Ropes & Gray litigation team for a new trial in Worcester Superior Court on behalf of Cifizzari.
Cifizzari and his late brother, Michael, who died in prison, were wrongfully convicted of the 1979 murder of their great aunt, Concetta Schiappa, according to the Innocence Project.
The May 31 motion exposed newly discovered and tested DNA evidence developed from the semen and saliva on the victim’s nightgown that exonerated Cifizzari and identified Michael Giroux as the “true perpetrator of the crime” through a CODIS DNA match, according to Innocence Project.
Giroux was originally a suspect in the case and questioned by police, but was never charged and later went on to commit other crime, according Jordan Salvatoriello, Innocence Project director of communications.
The Innocence Project motion also detailed how the Commonwealth’s case against Gary Cifizzari was built entirely on flawed bite mark comparison testimony, which the scientific community has since condemned as lacking any scientific basis. The motion also explained how one of the Commonwealth’s original experts, Dr. Richard Souviron, has since recanted the testimony he offered at Cifizzari’s trial, which was used to convict Cifizzari.
On July 12, 2019, the court allowed Cifizzari to be released from prison after 35 years while the court considered his motion for a new trial.
On Tuesday, the Innocence Project noted, the District Attorney filed an assent to the motion for a new trial, and the court allowed the motion for a new trial, officially overturning Cifizzari’s conviction.
In addition, today the District Attorney filed a motion for Nolle Prosequi, stating that it is not in the interests of justice to prosecute Mr. Cifizzari further, the Innocence Project noted in its statement.