The legal trials and tribulations of Alexander Pring-Wilson may finally be nearing an end. A one-day bench trial took place yesterday in Boston’s federal courthouse to determine whether Pring-Wilson will have to pay $260,000 in damages to the estate of Michael Colono. In 2003, Pring-Wilson, then a Harvard graduate student, fatally stabbed Colono, a Cambridge resident with a criminal record, during a fight. He has always maintained he acted in self-defense. After two trials, Pring-Wilson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in January 2008 and spent just under a year in jail. Colono’s estate won a $260,000 judgment against him in a civil trial in a Massachusetts court. Farmers Insurance Exchange, with whom Pring-Wilson’s mother had a home insurance policy, initially agreed to pay the settlement because the death was considered an accident, but they then changed their minds and decided that the death falls under one of the exclusions to the policy, so Pring-Wilson should have to pay. In yesterday’s trial, the insurance company is the plaintiff and both Pring-Wilson and Colono’s estate are the defendants.
Although the trial was originally scheduled to last a week, the unavailability of some witnesses – including Colono’s cousin and his girlfriend, who witnessed (or participated in) the fight – meant that it ended up lasting less than a day. Pring-Wilson and his mother, Cynthia Pring, were the only witnesses. Judge Patti B. Saris called court into session in Courtroom 19 at 9:30.
The first issue to be decided was Pring-Wilson’s residency, as the insurance policy only covers him if he is a Colorado resident. Pring-Wilson (who is representing himself) took the stand, sporting a gray suit, blue shirt, and dark tie, as well as a beard, which made him look quite different than I remember him from his criminal trials. He currently lives in a house in Colorado Springs, CO, with his wife, Janice Olmstead, whom he married in October of 2009 and who was his girlfriend since 2001, standing by him throughout all of his legal problems. His parents, Cindy Pring and Ross Wilson, got divorced in 1985, he said during direct examination by Elizabeth Mulvey, who represents Colono’s estate, and he and his younger twin sisters, Maggie and Jessica, lived with their mother. He gave this Colorado Springs address as his permanent address throughout his school years and his legal battles. While attending Colorado College, he lived in a dorm for his freshman year, spent some time studying abroad in Russia, and later lived in the college’s “Russian House,” with other students in Russian studies, and then in an apartment with friends. In 2001 he was accepted to a graduate program at Harvard, focusing on Russia and former Soviet socialist republics. His first day of class was September 11 of that year. He lived with a friend and her boyfriend in an apartment in Somerville and brought clothes, his computer, and “basically what I could fit in the back of a pickup truck” to Massachusetts. He left the rest of him belongings in the Colorado home, “depending on who you ask, either scattered all over the house or tidily packed in my room.” He returned there for Thanksgiving, winter break, spring break, and his birthday in February.
At the time of the fatal fight, Pring-Wilson had been accepted to a JD program at the University of Colorado and was planning to return to his home state. His mother’s Colorado home was listed as his residence on his school records, driver’s license, tax returns, voter registration, car registration, and passport. His only bank account was with Wells Fargo in Colorado.
While awaiting trial, he initially lived in the Somerville apartment with his two friends, but before his second trial began he moved to Marlboro with Olmstead, who had moved to Massachusetts. His bail conditions required him to live in Middlesex County, MA, but because his girlfriend got a teaching job in Worcester, he wanted to live as far west as possible. When released from prison on either New Year’s Eve 2008 or New Year’s Day 2009, he returned to the Colorado house. He and Olmstead currently have their own house, also in Colorado Springs.
Next Pring-Wilson’s mother, Cindy Pring, took the stand and was questioned by Michael Harris, another lawyer for Colono’s estate (which is actually on the same side as Pring-Wilson in this trial). Alexander was 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days older than his twin sisters, she said. When Harris tried to ask what Alex was like growing up, Judge Saris said, “no.” She often interjected to ask questions and cut off lines of discussion during today’s proceedings. Mrs. Pring said that Alex “has always been working” but that unlike his sisters, who moved out to start their own households, he kept his possessions at the house and considered it his permanent residence. Pring-Wilson got to ask his mother a question – where did Ms. Olmstead live at the time? She lived with her grandparents in Colorad, Mrs. Pring answered, until she moved to Massachusetts to be with her boyfriend in 2005.
In a victory for Pring-Wilson, Judge Saris ruled, “I find he’s a resident. It’s an overwhelming case that he’s a resident.”
During the next portion of the trial, Farmers Insurance Exchange and Fire Insurance Exchange had to prove that Pring-Wilson’s conduct at the time of Colono’s death fell within an exception to the home insurance policy, namely that Pring-Wilson intended to hurt Colono. Pring-Wilson took the stand again, and under direct examination by one of the insurance company’s lawyers (whose name I forget), he described the events of April 12, 2003. On Friday night (April 11) he went out with two friends, Jennifer Hanson and Mary Kate McCartney. He drank a total of 7 to 10 drinks at various places, including the Rosebud diner, the Burren, and the Western Front, but felt “pretty normal” and was able to think straight, talk, and walk normally. After the girls left in a cab, he walked home. At about 2 a.m., while trying to call his girlfriend on his cell phone, he heard someone yell to him from a parked car. Not hearing what was said, he replied, “Excuse me, were you talking to me?” They replied “very rudely” and he also responded rudely, he said. Then, he said, “the person knocks me back into the alley, driveway area, and at some point I get my bell rung.” When he regained consciousness, he was on his knees with one person kicking him from the front (Colono) and another punching the back of his head (Samuel Rodriguez, Colono’s cousin). “I feel like they’re not going to stop,” he testified. “I took the knife from my back pocket, I used it to clear some space in front of me. I have this distinct impression of space in front of me.” He called 911 on his cell phone and the two men left.
When Judge Saris questioned him about why he carried the knife, he replied, “I carry the knife all the time. It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to carry it.” Later he explained, “Generally I find having a pocket knife extremely useful…I’ve always carried a pocket knife. My sisters carry pocket knives. We all have them.” He has used his knife to sharpen pencils, open beers, and on the day of the fight, to help install shelves. He chose the particular model, made by Spyderco, because of its size, its flat and cerrated edges, and because it was manufactured in Colorado. He had never been in any kind of physical fight before or had any criminal record.
He did not run away, he said, because “It’s awfully hard to run away when somebody is punching you in the face.” He didn’t hit back because “it didn’t even occur to me.” He didn’t scream or call for help because there was no time to think: “All of a sudden there was this extremely violent, extremely angry person punching me in the face…I had my hands over my head, just trying to keep the blows from hitting…The person behind me just kept slamming his fist into the back of my head.” He said he was “very much afraid that these people wouldn’t stop until I was dead” and consistently maintained, “I used my knife to clear a path in front of me…It wasn’t so much a matter of striking but just getting them away from me.” He even knelt to the floor in front of the witness stand to demonstrate what he did during the fight, causing Judge Saris to exclaim, “I feel like I’m back in state court; I’m loving it!” She also scolded the insurance company lawyer for his repetitive questions.
When he called 911, Pring-Wilson told law enforcement that he had merely witnessed a fight. “The whole thing was just made up…It was just a really, really bad idea and I made a mistake…I have no better way to explain my mindset,” he said yesterday. The day after the fight, he was brought to the Cambridge police station, informed that Colono had died (which he found “extremely shocking”), and arrested. “I had a very bad headache,” he said. “I felt like I had the worst concussion I’ve ever had in my life.” When asked by Judge Saris, he said that he had had several concussions before, two from accidents and the rest from football and rugby.
The voluntary manslaughter conviction in Pring-Wilson’s first trial was overturned because of a later decision that allowed defendants to introduce evidence of the criminal history of the alleged victim. The second trial ended in a hung jury. Instead of facing a third trial, Pring-Wilson pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Although he had to agree to the prosecution’s statement of facts, he explained yesterday that this was not because he felt he was guilty. “I felt that our defense was the best it could get,” he explained. “My wife having basically supported both of us on her teacher’s salary, it became financially difficult for us to stay in Massachusetts.” He preferred to get everything over with and be able to return home after spending a year in prison than to incur the expenses and risk that a third trial would entail.
After the lunch break, the lawyers gave closing arguments, Mulvey arguing that Pring-Wilson had no intent to cause harm to Colono (and therefore the death was accidental) and lawyers for Fire Insurance Exchange arguing that something as slight as intending to swat someone’s arm away counts as an intent to harm, and therefore Pring-Wilson did intend to harm Colono. Pring-Wilson asked Judge Saris to “please consider the issue in light of self-defense…If you’re acting in a reasonable manner to defend yourself against somebody else…the policy applies…there’s no exclusion that applies.”
Judge Saris emphasized, “It’s a tragedy all around that this guy died…It’s a tragedy that this man’s career is derailed…It’s a little hard to blame someone.”
I’ll blog back with Judge Saris’s decision. I’m not sure how long that will take.