May 11, 2005
Innocent cons: Justice blind, slow to pay up
By Ann E. Donlan
Behind bars for crimes they did not commit, nine men have sued the
commonwealth for up to $4.5 million in damages under a much-touted new
law, but they have yet to see a dime and accuse Attorney General Tom
Reilly of fighting them all the way to the bank.
"All they have to do is use the same kind of expediency it took to convict
me," said Lawyer Johnson, a 54-year-old black man who was imprisoned for
10 years, including two years on death row, for the murder of a white man.
"They need to make amends to people that were convicted unjustly. They're
making something very simple very complex."
Johnson's court complaint notes that he was sentenced to death in 1972,
but after the first-degree murder conviction was vacated, he was convicted
of second-degree murder in a "racially-charged second trial at the
beginning of the Boston busing crisis." He was finally cleared in October
To help Johnson and 21 other men imprisoned for crimes they did not
commit, the Legislature approved the wrongful-convictions bill late last
year. Gov. Mitt Romney signed it, with an emergency provision to get it on
the books by Dec. 30. Since then, legal tactics of the AG's office, which
defends the state against the claims, have appalled the innocent men and
Corey Welford, a Reilly spokesman, defended the office's work, saying
state lawyers must gather criminal and court records. "By no means are we
delaying or saying that they are not entitled to the claims, but we do
have to do our jobs and make sure the plaintiffs meet the specific
requirements," Welford said. "We're moving as quickly as possible, but we
also have to do our job in a very impartial way." On April 21, Reilly's
office lost a motion seeking to yank a claim by Stephan Cowans from an
accelerated track in court to a slower pace, citing a "burden upon the
parties to resolve hastily such a complex matter," court records say.
Cowans' lawyer, Robert N. Feldman, fought the delay tactic, noting Cowans
served six years and was exonerated by DNA evidence. A judge agreed with
Feldman, saying that it would be "inappropriate" to remove the case from
its expedited track.
The state is on the hook for up to $4.5 million so far if each person
collects the maximum amount of $500,000 in damages. Under the law, victims
also are eligible for half-price college tuition and other state services,
some of which Reilly's office has helped to arrange while claims are
But Ulysses Charles, 55, worries he has too many needs and not enough
years to fix his problems after nearly two decades in prison for
rape-related charges. "Why is it taking so long? What's the hold-up? . . .
Angry is an understatement. They took away the best years of my life."
Nine angry men
Ulysses Charles - wrongly convicted of rape and robbery, 1984.
Stephan Cowans - wrongly convicted of armed assault with intent to
kill, home invasion, armed robbery and assaulting a police officer, 1998.
Lawyer Johnson - wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death,
1972. Reconvicted and sentenced to life, 1974.
Dennis Maher - wrongly convicted of two rapes, 1984.
Neil Miller - wrongly convicted of burglary, robbery and rape, 1990.
Marvin Mitchell - wrongly convicted of child rape, 1990.
Eric Sarsfield - wrongly convicted of rape and assault, 1987
John Scullin - wrongly convicted of rape, 1996.
Eduardo Velazquez, a.k.a. Angel Hernandez - wrongly convicted of
rape and assault in 1998.
Source: Attorney General's Office