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Boston's $10 Million Boo-Boos

Righting a wrongful conviction
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 1, 2009


The bill continues to come due for the string of nine wrongful convictions discovered in Boston between 1999 and 2004 — a tab that has now topped $10 million in court settlements.

The Boston Phoenix has learned that the city of Boston paid $3.8 million in December to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Anthony Powell, who spent more than 12 years in prison for a rape and kidnapping he did not commit. This is the third, and largest, settlement so far from these cases: the city previously paid $3.2 million each to Neil Miller and Stephan Cowans.

Powell was convicted in 1992 of attacking a woman at knifepoint in Roxbury. He was released in 2004, after DNA testing proved his innocence. The December settlement is in addition to $500,000 awarded to Powell under the state's wrongful-conviction compensation law.

Several other wrongful-conviction suits against the city are still pending, including those of Ulysses Rodriguez Charles, Laurence Adams, and Angel Toro. Shawn Drumgold, perhaps the best-known of the cases, is nearing trial in the second phase of his complicated action against the city and several individual officers. In another case, the city prevailed when a jury ruled that police did not violate the civil rights of Donnell Johnson.

Powell and his attorneys declined to discuss the settlement with the Phoenix, which discovered the settlement amount through a public-information request. The city's corporate counsel, William Sinnott, cited a confidentiality agreement, but said that, "In general terms, we've got a universe of cases we've been dealing with over the past couple of years, and we try to deal with them fairly." He added that the city feels that it has an added obligation in cases like Powell's, where "actual innocence" has been determined through DNA testing.

In court documents and previous interviews, Powell's attorneys have claimed that Boston police officers committed a series of sins in their rush to pin the crime on him: they pressured the victim into identifying Powell, even though he did not match her description; they ignored hairs that they knew did not match Powell's; and they failed to check other evidence.

With the city choosing to settle before trial, the question of whether this was a case of alleged negligence or worse will remain a matter of dispute. As in the other wrongful-conviction cases, the city and the Boston Police Department have not admitted to any wrongdoing. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Powell's conviction was who didn't get caught.

Even before Powell's conviction, there was reason to suspect that two other attacks — including one that took place after Powell had been jailed — were committed by the same rapist. That could have been confirmed through DNA testing, which was not conducted. After Powell's exoneration, the link between those rapes was confirmed, as was a fourth, committed in 1999.

Last year — just a few months before the city settled Powell's lawsuit — Suffolk County prosecutors charged one Jerry Dixon with the rapes, based on a DNA match. The pursuit of Powell, despite evidence of his innocence, may have prevented police from getting Dixon off the streets earlier, some local observers contend.

Stephen Hrones, the attorney who helped free Powell, adds that the case holds another lesson: the need for a state law governing post-conviction DNA testing .

A controversial Supreme Court ruling earlier this month leaves it to states to decide whether to provide convicted individuals access to DNA evidence when attempting to prove their innocence. Massachusetts is one of only three states with no law giving the convicted such automatic access — which leaves the decision in the hands of the district attorney's office.

In Powell's case, the Suffolk County DA agreed to turn over the evidence, but in other Massachusetts instances, that has not been the case.

Related: Patriots daze, Boston's Best City Life 2009, Boston's Best Food and Drink 2009, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Criminal Trials, Trials, Boston Police Department,  More more >
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Re: Boston's $10 Million Boo-Boos
Bernstein says that "In Powell's case, the Suffolk County DA agreed to turn over the evidence," as if, in other cases, the Suffolk County DA has not.  In fact, as Bernstein knows very well, it was District Attorney Conley who made it a policy not to oppose post-conviction DNA testing for relevant evidence.  Stephen Hrones knows this as well and has lauded the policy for what it is -- an affirmative, permanent, and uniformly-applied protocol with the specific intent of reducing the likelihood of a wrongful conviction to the smallest degree possible in a human endeavor like the criminal justice system.
By jakewark on 07/01/2009 at 5:12:39
Re: Boston's $10 Million Boo-Boos
No, Jake, that's not the implication of Bernstein's statement, as it is immediately followed by "in other Massachusetts incidents [as opposed to Suffolk county/Boston incidents], that has not been the case." And it's lovely that Conley has such a just policy- but there should be legal requirements and safeguards for this kind of thing, so they are not to be decided at the whim of a particular DA. Conley will not be Suffolk DA forever, nor is he DA for all of Massachusetts. I take it you oppose legislative intervention and are untroubled by these types of multi-million dollar settlements?
By Farnkoff on 07/02/2009 at 9:41:44

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    Righting a wrongful conviction
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 See all articles by: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

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