Peter Vaughn, Neil Miller and Shawn Drumgold were all freed after serving time for crimes they didn't commit. (Staff photo by John Wilcox)
May 5, 2004
SPECIAL REPORT: JUSTICE DENIED
22 Bay State men wrongfully jailed
Overzealous cops, shoddy investigations, lying witnesses - how the system failed
By Franci Richardson and Maggie Mulvihill
Within the last two decades, at least 22 innocent Bay State men - most of
them black and most investigated by Boston Police - have served serious
prison time after being wrongfully convicted on rape and murder charges,
according to a Boston Herald/Fox 25investigation.
Since 1997 alone, nine innocent black men convicted in Suffolk County have
been freed after serving anywhere from four to 30 years behind bars.
Throughout the country, 143 innocent suspects have been freed since 1990,
but experts say the number of Suffolk County's wrongful convictions is
second only to Chicago, which has sent the largest number of innocent men
``Unfortunately, Massachusetts in general has a big problem with wrongful
convictions,'' said Aliza B. Kaplan, an Innocence Project attorney.
``Suffolk County is up there, unfortunately.''
The Herald/Fox 25 findings come as Gov. Mitt Romney has renewed his call
for the death penalty, saying newly proposed guidelines will avoid
Nowhere in Massachusetts has the problem been more disturbing than in
Boston, where 77 percent of the wrongly convicted murderers and rapists
identified to date were arrested, tried and convicted.
Thirteen of those 17 Hub cases were investigated by Boston Police homicide
and rape detectives and prosecuted by the Suffolk County District
The BPD homicide unit has come under heavy criticism for conducting overly
aggressive interrogations while focusing their investigations too narrowly.
``When police get a suspect, they ignore any suggestion that someone else
did it,'' said Stephen Hrones, a defense attorney who represented
wrongfully convicted Donnell Johnson. Johnson, now 26, served five years
in prison for the 1994 murder of a 9-year-old boy.
Two new suspects were indicted for Jermaine Goffigan's death in 2001, but
have not yet been tried.
A review of wrongful convictions found these disturbing facts:
- A serious error by a Boston police fingerprint technician has triggered
a criminal investigation by Attorney General Tom Reilly into how a
thumbprint police said was Stephan Cowans' turned out to belong to a
Cowans, who served 6 1/2 years in prison, was freed in January after being
convicted for shooting Boston Police Sgt. Detective Gregory Gallagher in
His attorney, James Dilday, said: ``I truly believe that the Boston police
set him up and I think it's because there was a policeman who was shot.''
``Stephan was a young black man with a criminal record and he was nobody.
As far as they were concerned, one black man with a criminal record was
interchangeable with another black man with a criminal record,'' Dilday
- Ulysses Rodriguez Charles served 19 1/2 years in jail before being freed
last year for the 1980 rapes of three Brighton women.
Charles, 50, has tried to pick up where he left off nearly two de cades
ago - an innocent man with a hole in his life.
``I look at it like it was a death,'' said Charles, of Dorchester, sitting
next to his wife, Rosalind. ``I was just existing. I was just breathing.
My life had ceased. . .I don't talk about it now, though.''
Charles doesn't believe in the concept of justice.
``This goes on all the time,'' he said. ``It's happening now as we speak.
It's just unfortunate it happened to me.''
New DNA tests have also helped to clear other men who insisted they were
- Neil J. Miller spent 10 1/2 years in prison for raping a white Emerson
College student in 1989. Because DNA was not yet admissible in
Massachusetts courts, police never tested a semen stain on a sheet
covering the bed where the rape occured, a police official said. The lead
detective on the case, now-Deputy Supt. Margot Hill, claimed the stain
came from the victim's roommate's boyfriend. Recent DNA testing proved the
stain came from the rapist.
And even though the victim said her attacker touched many items in her
apartment, none of the fingerprints police lifted matched Miller's.
Miller, 37, also claims Hill improperly influenced the rape victim's
identification and falsely told the victim Miller had raped a 90-year-old
- The unreliability of eyewitness identification has also factored heavily
into the Suffolk County prosecutions.
``There are serious problems with eyewitness identification - more than I
recognized,'' said a sometimes tearful Leslie O'Brien, now a defense
attorney who, as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney in the
1990's, prosecuted four of the eight overturned cases.
One was Marlon Passley.
Passley, 31,was cleared in 1999 of a deadly 1995 shooting in which several
eyewitnesses claimed he pulled the trigger. He spent four years in prison.
``These witnesses, I'm telling you, were extremely convincing,'' O'Brien
- Families of those wrongly convicted blame Boston police, and some accuse
them of deliberately trying to frame their relatives.
The mother of Donnell Johnson - who spent five years in jail for the 1994
Halloween murder of a 9-year-old - said she was stunned when she realized
at her son's trial Sgt. Detective Daniel M. Keeler and his former partner,
Sgt. Detective William Mahoney, had withheld the alibi statement she, her
husband, and Johnson gave police the day after the murder.
``That was really hard to take in when you know the truth and you know
that we were in that room for a good 40 to 45 minutes being questioned,
with Donnell actually being questioned,'' Robin Johnson said. ``If you're
trying to build a case against somebody with not too much evidence, it was
another piece of the puzzle they needed to destroy.''
Another innocent man who fell victim to faulty identification was Shawn
Drumgold served 15 1/2 years after being wrongfully convicted of the
murder of 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore in 1988. He said the ``stigma
of child killer'' was a hard cross to bear in prison.
``I was scared to death. I was 23 years old,'' Drumgold said.
Drumgold, now 38, feels the uproar over the death of Moore - a young
victim of gang gunfire - drove police to blame anyone fast.
``I think they were just interested in getting someone to quiet the
community down,'' Drumgold said.
Confronted by what has become an ongoing, embarassing crisis, police and
prosecutors are being forced to revamp their systems.
In the two months since Kathleen M. O'Toole was appointed Boston police
commissioner, she ousted three homicide detectives and replaced the unit's
leadership with Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman.
She is also seeking to have her fingerprint and ballistics units certified
and is revamping protocol for interrogations.
``I can't rewrite history; I can tell you things are changing around
here,'' she said.
Powell's release led O'Toole and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel
Conley to establish a task force made up of police officers, prosecutors,
a professor and defense attorneys.