Thirty-eight years ago, Bill Cascone was convicted of arson and three counts of second degree felony murder in connection with a 1984 fire in North Adams that claimed the lives of three children. Cascone, who was 17 years old at the time of the fire, received the mandatory life sentence. Last August, the Boston College Innocence Program helped secure Cascone’s release from prison after 35 years of wrongful imprisonment. On June 14, 2023, Berkshire County Superior Court Judge Michael Callan granted the motion filed by BCIP and co-counsel David Grimaldi ’07 to vacate Cascone’s convictions.
The motion presented arson science contradicting the conclusion of state police arson investigators, who believed the fire was caused by arson as opposed to an electrical or other accidental cause. Judge Callan found that the arson science presented by BCIP “undermines the Commonwealth’s entire theory of the case” and “casts real doubt on the integrity of his 1987 conviction,” calling “into question whether the fire was intentionally set at all.” On June 27th, the Berkshire County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Cascone “in the interests of justice,” explaining that “applying the current science to the evidence that exists today results in both an unknown origin and an unknown cause for fire,” leaving the Commonwealth without even a prima facie case.
BCIP has represented Cascone in his quest for exoneration since 2018, according to Professor Sharon Beckman, BCIP’s Director. Grimaldi was initially appointed by CPCS to represent Cascone in seeking parole. “People convicted of second degree murder become eligible for parole after serving at least 15 years of their sentence, but parole boards want prisoners to accept responsibility for their crimes,” Beckman said. “This makes it exceedingly difficult for innocent people like Bill to get parole.” Bill’s assertion of his factual innocence prompted Grimaldi to switch gears and reach out to the BCIP for assistance.
A team of BCIP students, staff and volunteers led by BCIP Senior Staff Attorney Charlotte Whitmore investigated the case, researched grounds for postconviction relief, and prepared an extensive motion to vacate Cascone’s convictions which BCIP and Grimaldi filed in 2021. The motion presented multiple grounds for postconviction relief, including scientific research developed after Cascone’s trial in 1987 demonstrating that the state police fire investigation was grossly inadequate, and that the investigators’ conclusions about where and how the fire started were scientifically invalid. On August 3, 2022, the Commonwealth filed a response agreeing that the standard for postconviction relief was met because the deficiencies in the fire investigation “call into question the reliability of the evidence presented at trial, and, in turn, the overall integrity of this conviction.” Based on the merits of Cascone’s motion, the fact that he posed no risk to the public, and the Commonwealth’s assent, on August 11, 2022, Judge Callan ordered Bill released on a stay of execution of sentence pending further litigation of his motion for postconviction relief.
At an evidentiary hearing before Judge Callan on April 11, 2023, Whitmore, assisted by BCIP student Elizabeth Foley ’23, presented expert testimony by Dr. Craig Beyler that under the modern scientific standard of care, the fire investigation in this case that was done in 1984 was inadequate, that investigators were incorrect about the area of origin of the fire, and that the true cause of the fire is undetermined. The Commonwealth’s expert, retired State Trooper Michael Mazza agreed with these conclusions.
“Mr. Cascone’s case is a clear example of how errors can infect an investigation from the outset, leading to tragic results for those wrongfully convicted, their families and communities, and for all impacted by the events,” Foley said. “I am saddened to think of all the major life events Bill missed out on having been wrongfully incarcerated at such a young age. I learned that it is crucial for everyone involved in an investigation to keep in mind the risk of causing catastrophic harm.”
Clare Enright ’23, who worked closely with Whitmore, former BCIP fellow Sarah Elkins ’20 and classmate Ian Ramsey-North ’22 in preparing the motion that led to Cascone’s release, said that getting to know Bill and being able to use her legal education to help work on his case was an honor and a highlight of her time at BC Law. “Bill’s kindness is only outmatched by his resolute faith in everyone on his legal team,” she said. “I’m relieved and elated that Bill has the justice he has waited decades for.”
Classmates Nathaniel Carney ’21 and Cameron Casey ’21 conducted extensive investigation and witness interviews, uncovering previously unknown facts supporting Cascone’s innocence during their 2L year in the BCIP clinic. Both continued working on his case during their 3L year as volunteers to complete their investigation and help develop the legal grounds for the motion for postconviction relief.
“It was an honor to work in the BCIP clinic to correct this injustice,” said Carney, now a criminal defense attorney in private practice. “I learned so much from Professor Beckman and Attorney Whitmore, from my fellow students, and from Bill. My time in BCIP helped shape the attorney I am today.”
“Working on Bill’s case was hands down the most meaningful part of my law school experience,” said Casey, currently serving as law clerk for a United States District Court judge. “It allowed me to pursue my dream of becoming a public interest lawyer while learning from some of the best innocence attorneys in the country. It was the honor of a lifetime to represent Bill, whose humility, resilience and sense of humor, even while incarcerated, always uplifted and inspired me. I look forward to a lifetime of friendship with Bill now that he is free.”
In all, Cascone’s legal team included five generations of BC Law students who contributed tens of thousands of clinic and pro bono hours to his case. Caroline Evans ’19, Steve Brady LLM ’19, George Mead ’20, Cameron Casey ’21, Nathaniel Carney ’21, Ian Ramsey-North ’22, Clare Enright ’23, Elizabeth Foley ’23, and Scott Etchechury ’23 all made significant contributions. Beckman and former BCIP post-graduate fellow Sarah Elkins ’20 lent crucial support as well. Kate Ziegelstein MSW ’23 and Associate Clinical Professor Claire Donohue assisted in creating a reentry plan for Bill and supporting him in his transition to freedom.
Judith Tracy began volunteering on Cascone’s case upon her retirement in 2019 after serving for more than two decades on BC Law faculty. Her fellowship through the Lawyer’s Clearing House Access to Justice Fellows Program was intended to last one year, but after meeting Cascone, she was determined to help see his case through to the end. She was consistently impressed by Charlotte’s and Sharon’s brilliant lawyering, dedication, and mentoring skills, she said. “Bill Cascone taught me unforgettable lessons about patience, quiet perseverance, and trust,” Tracy said. “I was privileged to have had the opportunity to participate alongside the students in the BC Innocence Program.”
Attorney Grimaldi, himself a former clinic student of Professor Beckman’s who went on to become a public defender at the Committee for Public Counsel Services before founding his own law firm, described Cascone’s exoneration as “a testament to the brilliant work of many BCIP lawyers and students, especially Charlotte Whitmore, whose determination and fearless advocacy is the leading reason Bill is a free man today.”
“Many BCIP students worked tirelessly to help achieve this long-awaited outcome and we are privileged to have partnered with BC Law alum David Grimaldi to achieve justice for Bill after so many years of wrongful conviction,” Whitmore said. Whitmore and Beckman both expressed “gratitude to Judge Callan and the Berkshire County District Attorney’s office for recognizing the injustice of Bill’s convictions and acting to exonerate him.”
Now living with his family, Cascone continues to take small steps to rebuild his life after decades of wrongful imprisonment. “I am overjoyed with the news of the Judge’s decision,” he said. “It was a long time coming and a cause for celebration. I am getting used to the free world again and enjoying spending time with my family and being outside in nature.”