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The worst homicide squad in the country, continued


US cities with fewer than 200 murders a year

*=Through 2003; 2004 data unavailable.

Compiled by the Boston Phoenix from FBI reports and city police departments.

 

Fixing the Problem

Five ways to get the murder rate under control

1) Fresh faces. The city desperately needs to bring in talented, experienced leaders from other cities. When Los Angeles needed a new police chief, city leaders hired William Bratton away from New York City, after considering the top cops of Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, and Cambridge. Atlanta's chief previously ran the Washington, DC, and New Orleans forces. Seattle recruited the chief from Buffalo. Boston's last three police commissioners were all Boston Police Academy graduates. Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole has never worked for a different city. Neither did her predecessor, Paul Evans. Nor have Paul Joyce, head of investigations; Daniel Coleman, head of the homicide unit; or Coleman's predecessor, Paul Farrahar. DA Dan Conley has worked only in Suffolk County. The chief of the DA's homicide unit, David Meier, formerly worked across the river in Middlesex County, which he readily admits is not comparable to big-city experience.

2) Independent review. The only way to know why murders haven't been solved - or why some have been solved incorrectly - is through an independent review board, with full access to records and subpoena power over witnesses. Ideally, this could uncover wrongful convictions and jump-start cold investigations, but it would also discover what BPD practices need reforming, which personnel need retraining, and whether any wrongdoing has taken place.

3) Zero tolerance. The BPD lets its officers get away with just about anything short of murder - and some aren't so sure about that, given the dozen civilian killings all ruled justified in the past five years. Those who cut corners and even lie not only go unpunished, they are consistently rewarded - like the infamous Daniel Keeler. The BPD's many honest, hard-working officers need to know that bending the rules won't be tolerated or rewarded.

4) More, more, more. Money isn't the only answer, but it must be part of the answer. The BPD needs more detectives, more forensics specialists, and more beat cops. The DA needs more (and higher-paid) prosecutors. And Suffolk Superior Court needs a major boost; if the system is backlogged this badly when only a third of the killers are nabbed, imagine the delays if the homicide arrest rate improves.

5) Get sensitive. Maybe Boston's residents of color would be more willing to assist the police if cops didn't treat them like criminals. Maybe police would draw fewer wrong conclusions if they didn't look at every black man as a likely gangbanger. As the city's own survey revealed last year, residents are losing trust in the police, particularly in the neighborhoods where most of the unsolved murders happen.

After Bruce Robinson’s murder in March 2000, police "expressed confidence that a suspect will be named shortly," according to newspaper reporting at the time. Police also said they had "good leads" after Francis Stephens was killed in September 2000. Yet both cases remain unsolved.

The December 2000 murder of Oral Bethel, father of three, remains unsolved, although police told his family early on that they had a suspect. Since then, Bethel’s relatives say, they can’t get any information about the case; their calls are not returned, and his cousin got brushed off when she went to BPD headquarters. "At least once a year they could check in with us," says Mattie Bethel, Oral’s aunt, who raised him.

Linda Smith, sister of Matthew Smith, who was gunned down in May 2000, feels the same way. "They should at least keep us informed, at least that they’re still working on it and haven’t just forgotten about him," she says. "We don’t know anything. No detective has contacted us."

The same applies to the family of Michael Tavares, who say they have not heard anything from police in ages. The last they heard, detectives "think they know who did it, they’re just waiting for him to make another mistake," says one family member.

Detectives told Bethel’s family much the same thing five years ago. It is not unreasonable to suspect that detectives jumped to a wrong conclusion in many of these unsolved cases, and were unable or unwilling to follow evidence in a different direction. We can reasonably guess this, because they have done the same thing again and again in cases they do solve. Tacaray Jones, mentioned above, is one example. Another is John Leydon, whose death was blamed on his brother until someone else confessed to it. Other convictions appear to suffer from the same problem, as the Phoenix has described previously in "Blind Spots."

A CULTURE OF IGNORANCE

Perhaps the signature moment in Boston’s recent law-enforcement troubles came in January 2004, when David Meier, head of the Suffolk DA’s homicide unit, which prosecutes cases that the BPD investigates, spoke to reporters after the Supreme Judicial Court reversed Stephan Cowans’s conviction for the non-fatal shooting of a Boston police officer. (In addition to homicides, Meier handles cases involving police officers.) Meier went in front of the press, vowing to re-try Cowans on the strength of the evidence — particularly the fingerprint match that placed Cowans at the scene.

Two days later, after learning that the fingerprint did not match Cowans, Meier and the Suffolk DA’s Office announced that Cowans was innocent.

We — and Meier — have since learned that the entire BPD latent-fingerprint unit had long been entirely inept and untrained, calling into question the validity of years’ worth of work. And this was just one of a long series of revelations about the workings of the city’s investigative forces.

As each of these revelations has spilled out, our top cops, prosecutors, and elected officials have treated them as separate and distinct problems, unrelated to the fundamental quest for criminal justice. But none of these problems could possibly have gotten as bad as it did, or lasted so long, if the people heading the investigations and prosecutions were running a competent and capable operation — one in which the work of the subordinates and offices on which they relied received appropriate scrutiny.

Instead, those investigators and prosecutors have been utterly indifferent to the quality of work being done for them, a conclusion illustrated in a document newly obtained by the Phoenix relating to the disgraced BPD fingerprint unit. This June 2004 report was written by the Mississippi company hired to evaluate the unit after the mistaken fingerprint match was discovered in Cowans’s case.

The report reveals that for years, the BPD transferred to the fingerprint unit its "less than desirable employees," people with no relevant educational background, knowledge, skill, or abilities. It provided them with no written guidelines, no technical training, no written policies or procedures, no quality-assurance or quality-control program, no internal or external proficiency testing, no participation in forensics organizations, no continuing-education plans, and no professional certification. This situation, the report says, developed "over the last twenty or thirty years ... as a result of non-attention or non-concern from the upper management staff."

But most telling is that after the BPD received this report, the department’s response was to keep operating the unit. Only after another assessment of the unit’s incompetence became public four months later did BPD commissioner Kathleen O’Toole finally shut the unit down.

Even then, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office continued, and continues, to march members of the defunct fingerprint unit up to Superior Court and present them, with a straight face, as expert witnesses. In an upcoming federal trial, one of the scheduled expert witnesses is a BPD print analyst described in the Mississippi company’s later report, from October 2004, as having "a significant lack of technical knowledge," and whose "ability to properly evaluate latent prints ... fell far short of what would be expected."

NO END IN SIGHT

The portions of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury in the map here make up a tiny area, roughly two miles by three. There have been 38 unsolved murders there in the past year and a half, and 61 since the start of 2002. Few people who live there are unaffected by these murders. But by now, few residents expect murders in their neighborhood to get solved.

"I feel like I could go out and commit a murder and get away with it," says Shika Bethel, Oral’s cousin. "And I work with DYS [Department of Youth Services] kids, and that’s exactly how they feel."

Family members of three different victims of unsolved murders have confided to the Phoenix that they have had to restrain other relatives or friends from taking revenge on a suspected killer. "Several of his friends said to me, ‘We could take him for a ride and take care of him,’" says one mother. She told them no; she wants an arrest and a trial. "The need to know who did it and what happened is more important than the punishment."

Maria Cardosa wants a trial too. She keeps working the case of her son’s murder, getting information and bringing it to the detective. From meeting other mothers of murder victims, she knows the odds are stacked against her in Boston. "All the kids get killed," she says. "They never get a criminal. They always have a suspect, but never a criminal."

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com. Katie Liesener contributed to this report.

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Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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