In December 1984, a man was found stabbed to death in Fall River, Massachusetts. Three eyewitnesses told police that a black man about 5’7” was seen with the victim just before he was killed. Police had no suspects until an informant told them that Harold Sullivan and Lester Olsen, both white men about 6’0” tall, had confessed to a woman named Gail Trottier.
The police brought Trottier in for questioning. Trottier initially stated that the men had come to her apartment after the victim had died, but that they had never confessed to her. The police interrogated her for six days, threatened to charge her as an accessory to the murder, and to have her children removed from her care. Trottier eventually told police that Sullivan and Olsen had confessed to her that they committed the murder. This statement became the primary evidence against Sullivan. After Trottier testified to this confession in front of a grand jury, the police told the grand jury that Trottier had given an earlier statement, but that it did not differ significantly from her testimony. They claimed that the earlier statement was not recorded because their equipment was broken at the time. The earlier eyewitness descriptions of the perpetrator were not provided to the defense. Based on Trottier’s testimony, Sullivan was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder in March 1986, and sentenced to life in prison.
Following Sullivan’s conviction, Trottier recanted her testimony and revealed that it had been coerced, and the tape of her original interview was later found. Based on the prosecution’s failure to turn over this exculpatory evidence, Sullivan’s conviction was reversed and he was granted a new trial. In 1990, a jury acquitted him of all charges.
- Stephanie Denzel