False testimony by two Boston Police Department fingerprint analysts and erroneous eyewitness identifications led to the 1998 conviction of Stephan Cowans for, among other crimes, the armed assault and attempted murder of a police officer.
Cowans was exonerated in 2004 when the incriminating fingerprint evidence was found to be fraudulent and DNA tests excluded him as the source of biological evidence in the case.
On May 30, 1997, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Police Sgt. Gregory Gallagher was shot twice with his own gun during a struggle with an African-American man who also fired at but missed Benjamin Pitre, an area resident. The assailant wore a baseball cap, which he lost before fleeing. Armed with Gallagher’s gun, the man forced his way into the nearby home of Bonnie Lacy. She asked him to put down the gun, and he complied. He then asked for water, which she gave him in a mug. Shedding a sweatshirt he was wearing, he drank the water and fled, leaving the gun, the sweatshirt, and the mug behind.
Several days later, from an array of eight photographs, Sgt. Gallagher, who was white, identified his assailant as Cowans, 27, who had a record of burglary and petty theft. Pitre and Lacy, who also were white, were shown the same photographic lineup, but made no identification. On July 12, 1997 Cowans was put into a live lineup from which Gallagher and Pitre identified him. Lacy also viewed the lineup but again made no identification. The next day a Suffolk County grand jury returned indictments charging Cowans with intent to murder, home invasion, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and unlawful possession of a firearm.
A thumb print on the water mug from the Lacy home was run through the computerized national fingerprint database, which included Cowans’s fingerprints, but there was no match. Cowans went on trial in June 1998, and Boston Police Department fingerprint analysts Dennis LeBlanc and Rosemary McLaughlin testified that they had identified the thumbprint as belonging to Cowans. Their testimony, along with in-court identifications by Gallagher and Pitre, sealed Cowans’s fate. The jury found him guilty of all charges on June 30. Seven days later Judge James D. McDaniel Jr. sentenced him to an indeterminate term of 35 to 50 years in prison. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts affirmed the conviction and sentence on October 12, 2001.
In the hope that DNA testing could exonerate him, Cowans turned to the New England Innocence Project. One of the project’s founders, Robert N. Feldman, of the Boston firm of Birnbaum & Godkin, agreed to represent Cowans. On May 22, 2003, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat approved Feldman’s request to have the mug, baseball cap, and sweatshirt tested for DNA.
In January 2004, the tests, which were performed by Orchid Cellmark, established that DNA from all three items came from the one person and that person was not Cowans. On January 21, 2004, Judge Lauriat granted Cowans a new trial based on the DNA results and set bail at $7,500, which supporters of Cowans promptly posted.
Suffolk County District Attorney David E. Meier vowed to retry Cowans, relying on the purported thumbprint match. Two days later, however, Meir stunned courtroom spectators, telling Lauriat, “I can conclusively and unequivocally state, your honor, that that purported [thumbprint] match was a mistake.” At a hearing on February 2, Meier dismissed the charges, acknowledging Cowans was innocent.
LeBlanc and McLaughlin were placed on administrative leave and after an internal investigation the Boston Police Department Latent Fingerprint Unit was temporarily shut down. Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly launched a grand jury investigation but announced on June 24, 2004, that no charges would be brought against LeBlanc and McLaughlin, who had retired.
Cowans, who contracted hepatitis C and whose mother had died while he was in prison, brought a federal civil rights suit against the City of Boston, which settled the case for $3,200,000 in August 2006. He also received $500,000 in compensation from the state. He bought two new cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, and a comfortable suburban home. But he did not have long to enjoy his wealth and freedom. On October 25, 2007, he was found slain in his home. The crime remained unsolved in early 2014.
– Rob Warden and Michael Aikins