Friday, April 19, 2024

Kellyanne Conway speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in October 2017, only days after selling her consultancy, The Polling Co. (Photo: Stuart Isett for Fortune Most Powerful Women)

Before she became a presidential aide, Kellyanne Conway was a footnote in a long-running saga in Cambridge criminal justice: She sold her polling services to Alexander Pring-Wilson, the Harvard graduate student who pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in the April 2003 stabbing death of a Cambridge teen.

A recently uncovered report shows that Conway, now a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, completed a survey identifying the most advantageous venue for Pring-Wilson’s trial. A 25-year-old Colorado native, he had been arrested after Cambridgeport resident Michael Colono died from stab wounds suffered during an impromptu fight on Western Avenue with an intoxicated Pring-Wilson minutes after leaving a local music club.

Pring-Wilson, who claimed self-defense, took exception to Colono mocking his drunken stagger while walking past the now-closed Pizza Ring restaurant in Riverside.

The Pizza Ring restaurant on Western Avenue in Riverside in 2010, long after becoming the scene of a fatal stabbing. (Photo: Derek B. via Yelp)

The trial was originally to start in November 2003, but a motion to move it meant a delay to September 2004. 

The 17-page Conway report, which was completed in February 2004, is notable because it’s a tangible example of how money and power can influence – or at least try to influence – the justice system. The report aimed to determine whether Pring-Wilson was more likely to get “a fair and balanced trial” in a county other than Middlesex.

Pring-Wilson was the son of two wealthy attorneys and speaker of five languages who planned a career in environmental law after getting his master’s at Harvard. But he promoted himself there as an outdoorsman from the Wild West, wearing cowboy boots and carrying a nearly 4-inch knife in his back pocket while studying at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

The Conway report concluded that Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts would be the best setting, because fewer Berkshire residents were aware of the circumstances surrounding Colono’s death compared with metropolitan Boston residents of Middlesex or Norfolk counties. Also, residents of Western Massachusetts would be more sympathetic to a knife-carrying man, the report concluded.

“Berkshire County residents were more likely than residents in Middlesex County or Norfolk County to say that it is expected that a person who has been raised in a rural western state would carry a pocket knife as an adult residing in a more urban city,” the report concluded.

Conway’s Washington, D.C.-based business, The Polling Co., interviewed 1,200 residents of Middlesex, Berkshire and Norfolk counties, 400 apiece. Pollsters found that 80 percent of Middlesex County residents hadn’t decided whether Pring-Wilson was guilty or innocent. Two percent believed he was innocent, but 9 percent believed he was guilty, the report indicates.

He was never granted a change of venue for his monthlong murder trial and was subsequently convicted of manslaughter in Middlesex Superior Court.

But a retrial granted on a technicality regarding evidence resulted in a hung jury and a plea agreement with the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office. Pring-Wilson ultimately pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, resulting in a little more than two years of prison time served for Colono’s slaying. 

In a civil suit, a Superior Court judge ruled that Pring-Wilson didn’t do enough to avoid the fight and a knife was more force than he needed to survive the altercation. His parents’ homeowner’s insurance policy later covered the $260,000 cost of wrongful death damages determined in the civil claim.

The Harvard Crimson covered Pring-Wilson’s arrest and ensuing judicial proceedings closely. But Harvard officials never acknowledged publicly his role in Colono’s death. The university’s official news outlet, The Harvard Gazette, didn’t report on the stabbing or Pring-Wilson’s trials.

Conway founded The Polling Co. in 1995 and resigned as president and chief executive after accepting her position in Trump’s White House in early 2017. The business was sold that year for an undisclosed amount to a Republican communications firm, CRC Public Relations, multiple sources reported.

It’s unclear whether Pring-Wilson’s defense work was unusual for The Polling Co., best known for its political operations, or what portion of its business focused on such criminal cases. The company spokeswoman didn’t respond to multiple messages seeking clarification.