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The jig is up
After a string of wrongful-conviction revelations, and anger over the acquittal of an alleged killer, the Stephan Cowans case further erodes trust in the criminal-justice system

LACK OF FAITH in the local criminal-justice system — the Boston Police Department (BPD) and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office — is mounting. It is probably at its lowest point in 15 years, since Boston police wrongly accused a black man, Willie Bennett, of murdering pregnant white woman Carol DiMaiti Stuart in the fall of 1989. The news, two months later, that the killer was Stuart’s husband, Charles, and his subsequent suicidal leap off the Tobin Bridge, make the episode a lingering sore spot in this racially sensitive city.

Emotions have not run as hot as they have in Cincinnati, Miami, or Los Angeles, where riots rooted in deep-seated animosity between citizens of color and officials have broken out in recent years. Nothing yet has rivaled the O.J. Simpson jury’s powerful vote of no confidence in the criminal-justice apparatus. Locally, however, we caught a glimpse of the potential for outrage last month, in the demonstrations after a jury acquitted Kyle Bryant of the ghastly murder of pregnant 14-year-old Chauntae Jones. Whether it was a fluke or a case of jury nullification, the Bryant acquittal did nothing to reassure minority communities that justice works equally for all.

As things stand, three convictions of young black men have been overturned in Boston in the past six months, and nine in the past seven years. It’s becoming ever more apparent that untold numbers of people have served time for nothing — while the real killers go unpunished for their crimes. Now, developments in the case of Stephan Cowans threaten to push things to another level. Cowans’s 1997 conviction for shooting a police officer was overturned on the basis of DNA evidence in January — and days later, Suffolk County DA Daniel Conley’s office announced that a fingerprint that had helped convict Cowans seven years ago was not actually his.

The Cowans case adds a new element — questions about the reliability of basic physical evidence, namely fingerprints — to a growing list of concerns:

Eyewitness identification. The BPD’s methods of obtaining IDs are so outmoded that Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole and DA Conley have created a special task force to change those practices.

Witness handling. Cases like Shawn Drumgold’s wrongful conviction for the 1988 murder of Tiffany Moore have shown that BPD detectives at times make secret deals for testimony.

Police dishonesty. On April 6, Conley announced that Detective Miguel Pinto had been indicted for allegedly filing a false report about observing a cocaine sale that resulted in three arrests. According to the indictments, Pinto was not even inside the building when he claimed to witness the deal take place in the restroom.

Now add the new suspicions about physical evidence, and jurors, arguably, are nearly compelled to have reasonable doubt even before walking through the courtroom door. "Take a look at different ways that a person’s going to get convicted," says Michael Doolin, a Boston defense attorney. "Eyewitness testimony turns out to be faulty. Now fingerprinting turns out to be faulty."

THE FINGERPRINTS in Cowans’s conviction came from a glass mug, from which the culprit drank when he broke into a house shortly after the shooting. Sergeant Gregory Gallagher, the victim, lost his gun to an assailant during a struggle; Gallagher was then shot while scaling a fence to escape. The shooter then allegedly entered the home of Bonnie Lacy, sat down, removed his sweatshirt, and asked Lacy for a glass of water. Gallagher later identified Cowans as the attacker; Lacy did not. But a fingerprint left on the glass was matched to Cowans.

It now appears that the fingerprint actually belonged to someone who lived in the house. To find out how it came to be identified as Cowans’s, the BPD’s Internal Affairs Division, along with outside consultants, conducted separate investigations in February and March. The outside team was led by veteran fingerprint analyst Ron Smith, of the Meridian, Mississippi–based Ron Smith and Associates, Inc. "The Boston Police Department has been exceptionally cooperative," Smith says.

Questions had been raised publicly about the competence of the two BPD fingerprint examiners, Dennis LeBlanc and Rosemary McLaughlin, who testified in 1997 that the print matched Cowans’s, and more broadly about the science of fingerprint identification. But according to information obtained by the Phoenix, the problem is not merely one of print-matching competence. In fact, one person who has seen the prints, but wished to remain anonymous due to the ongoing investigation, says that Cowans’s fingerprints and the print on the mug are nothing alike and could not have been mistaken for a match.

Although the BPD has not made public the reports of either the internal or the external investigation, it shared the results with both the DA and state attorney general Tom Reilly, confirms BPD spokesperson Beverly Ford. And the Phoenix has obtained a Suffolk County DA disclosure document that explains what the DA’s office believed happened. The document, dated April 6, was sent to lawyers whose current cases might be affected by the findings of the investigation — lawyers who might wish to argue that fingerprints processed by the same technicians should be excluded as evidence in their own cases.

The fingerprint on the mug, the document says, actually matched an "elimination fingerprint" — the term used for fingerprints of known individuals who have had contact with a crime scene, but are not suspects — possibly that of Lacy or another occupant of the house. Police collected those fingerprints and sent them to the BPD forensics division for comparison with the print on the mug. According to the disclosure document, fingerprint technicians LeBlanc and McLaughlin either never checked, or checked and failed to see, that the mug print belonged to one of the innocent people who passed through the crime scene that day — not Cowans.

The disclosure document further reveals that one of the innocent people’s fingerprint cards was mislabeled. "The name and signature on one of the fingerprint cards ... were not the name and signature of the individual from whom that particular set of elimination fingerprints had in fact been taken. The set of fingerprints were in fact those of another individual from whom elimination fingerprints had been taken." (Emphasis in original.)

According to Cowans’s attorney, James Dilday, Cowans’s name and signature were on a card with somebody else’s fingerprints — the prints of someone who actually touched the mug, possibly Lacy. "I don’t understand how that happened," Dilday says.

That "how" is all-important. So important, in fact, that a grand jury is currently investigating whether to bring criminal indictments against BPD officers in the Cowans case. Dilday is scheduled to testify on May 17.

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Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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