Hamel found guilty of Athol murder, sentenced to life in prison

  • Keith Hamel is stoic as he listens to the guilty verdict being read in Superior Court on Wednesday with his attorney, Joshua Hochberg. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A court officer handcuffs Keith Hamel after he was found guilty of murder in Franklin County Superior Court on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • First Assistant Clerk Magistrate Benjamin Simanski, left, polls the jury on each charge against Keith Hamel in Franklin County Superior Court on Wednesday. Judge John Agostini is at right. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2022 8:41:45 PM
Modified: 9/7/2022 8:41:12 PM

GREENFIELD — An Athol man was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Wednesday, roughly an hour after 12 deliberating jurors found him guilty of killing 26-year-old Kelsey Clifford in 2019.

Keith D. Hamel, 25, was convicted of murder in the first degree with extreme atrocity or cruelty following roughly 15 hours of jury deliberation in Franklin County Superior Court. He was also found guilty on two counts of intimidation of a witness/juror/police/court official, and four counts of withholding evidence from an official proceeding. The jury found Hamel not guilty of one count of armed robbery.

He was also sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison for each of the intimidation and withholding evidence charges. The first sentence for intimidation is set to begin after the life sentence for murder, while the second intimidation sentence runs concurrently — or at the same time — with that one. The first sentence for withholding evidence will begin after the murder sentence, while the other three will run concurrently with that one.

The state accused Hamel, who had a girlfriend, of using a claw hammer to murder Clifford, who was dating Hamel’s best friend, in the early hours of Nov. 11, 2019, to conceal a sexual encounter between the two. Hamel had also been accused of stealing $400 in cash and a cellphone from Clifford after she was dead.

The prosecution rested its case on Aug. 31 and the defense rested the following day. Jury deliberations began on Friday afternoon.

The victim’s parents, Paul and Allison Clifford, held each other in an embrace when the first guilty verdict was read aloud shortly after 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Hamel’s mother exited the courtroom. Her screams of grief could be heard down the hallway. Hamel remained stoic as the verdict was read.

During her victim impact statement, Allison Clifford recalled the night of Nov. 11, 2019, when a police officer arrived at her home with the news of her daughter’s death.

“Every horrendous emotion ripped through me — devastation, heartbreak, sadness. The impact was unbelievable. I felt I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die,” she read. “My darling, beautiful daughter Kelsey was gone and I never even got to say goodbye, or hold her one more time. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that I don’t think of Kelsey.

“Keith,” she continued, “you not only took my daughter; you took a mama from her little boy, you took a niece, a granddaughter, a cousin, a sister, a sister-in-law, an aunt and a friend.”

Allison Clifford also told Hamel she has the potential to hate him for this, but she would like to think that is not what God intended.

“I actually forgive you and feel sorry for you,” she read. “I have to believe that your upbringing, environment and the influence of your family and friends have made you an angry, cold and callous person with disregard for human life. I will pray that you get the help you so desperately need and that no one else has to suffer the tremendous loss our family now has to endure for the rest of our lives.”

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Webber, who prosecuted the case with Chief Trial Counsel Jeremy Bucci, read a statement from Paul Clifford. In the letter, Kelsey Clifford’s father recalled watching the evening news on Nov. 11, 2019, and knowing in his heart his daughter was dead after hearing about a young woman killed in Athol.

Kelsey Clifford grew up in Leominster and had recently moved to Athol from Fitchburg. Her father’s nightmare became a reality a couple of hours later when the police arrived at his door.

In the letter, Paul Clifford recalled sharing doughnuts with his daughter and coaching her in T-ball. He also said he is now overly protective of his grandson, whom he and his wife have taken under their care. He also said he is hesitant to ride in the same vehicle as his wife out of fear of an accident that robs the child of two loving grandparents.

Brian Campbell, who said he is Kelsey Clifford’s uncle and godfather, thanked the police and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office for their hard work during this case. He later said in an interview that his family acknowledges Hamel’s relatives are dealing with their own trauma but said the jurors reached the correct verdict.

“Based on the evidence, the timeline and everything that was presented, they got it right,” he said in the hallway.

The DA’s office said in a statement the prosecution appreciates the careful thought the jury gave to this case and it was a just verdict.

On Tuesday, Leo Hamel III, Keith Hamel’s father, told the Recorder his family members extend their heartfelt condolences to Clifford’s loved ones. He said he knows the pain of experiencing a child’s death, having lost his son, Raymond Hamel, in August 2019, just three months before Clifford’s murder.

Hamel, represented by attorney Joshua Hochberg, has been adamant about his innocence. He chose to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights not to take the stand during his trial, and the jury was advised not to hold that decision against him. Hochberg declined to provide comment to the Recorder.

Immediately before sentencing, Hochberg asked Judge John Agostini to take into consideration Hamel’s struggles with drug addiction and his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. He also said Hamel is the father of a 6-year-old.

Agostini, who said he has been a judge for 20 years, addressed the court before sentencing, expressing his sympathy to both families involved with the case. He acknowledged there are no words of solace sufficient to relieve their suffering.

“There are still some things that I will never understand,” the judge said, referring to Hamel’s actions as despicable. “And this case is one of them.”

The state spent a week building its case in court, starting on Aug. 25. The jurors began the trial with a view, in which they were driven by bus to six Athol locations associated with the case.

A sweatshirt linked to Hamel was recovered from Leonard Street, which is between the Athol Wastewater Treatment Plant — where Clifford’s body was found — and where Hamel was living on Silver Lake Street. The sweatshirt had his DNA and Clifford’s blood on it, prosecutors said.

Also, saliva and DNA matching that of Hamel were recovered from Clifford’s body, according to the prosecution. However, during a cross-examination, Hochberg got a Massachusetts State Police crime lab employee to confirm that no one processed the clothes Clifford was wearing when she was murdered.

Tony Audet, Hamel’s fellow inmate at the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction, testified during the trial that Hamel told him where the murder weapon was and asked him to tell jail officers the information came from Kevin McGann, Clifford’s boyfriend.

Audet explained he drew a map based on Hamel’s description of the weapon’s location (a sewer grate at the corner of Ridge Avenue and Union Street in Athol) and later made a copy of it. The hammer was recovered from that location on Jan. 28, 2021.

Hochberg grilled Audet on the stand, however, telling him he has “made a bit of a career” out of being a “jailhouse snitch.” Audet explained he cooperates with jail officers in exchange for money on an account to spend at the jail’s canteen, where inmates can buy snacks and other items. But, he said, he is honest about the information he forwards.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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