Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Natale Cosenza

Other Massachusetts Exonerations with Innocence Organization Involvement
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Natale_Cosenza%20-%20Photo%201%20(1).jpg
At about 4 a.m. on August 14, 2000, a 37-year-old woman woke up in her darkened bedroom in Worcester, Massachusetts to discover a man sitting on the floor next to her bed. When she demanded to know who he was, the man began beating her arms and hands with a wooden chair rung as she attempted to shield her head. When he climbed onto her bed, the woman, M.H., began kicking him and the man fled. The attack lasted a matter of seconds.

M.H. called 911. Police arrived in a few minutes and found the wooden rung, which appeared to have been broken off a chair in M.H.’s kitchen. They were unable to recover fingerprints. M.H. said the man was white, and wore a dark T-shirt and briefs-style underwear. She said he had a white T-shirt over his head and she therefore could not tell if he had any hair.

Police determined that the attacker came in by removing a screen on a sliding window leading to a balcony of the fourth floor apartment. Police knocked on doors of the other apartments, but no one reported seeing or hearing anything.

One resident, Robert Payton, did say that he was suspicious of another resident of the apartment complex, 26-year-old Natale Cosenza. Payton said his dirt bike had recently been stolen. About a week later, Cosenza approached him and said he could help him get the bike back. Payton said Cosenza led him into some woods and located the dirt bike, and then asked for a reward.

The investigating detective assembled a photographic array with nine photographs including Cosenza. Rather than looking for photographs of people who fit the description M.H. gave, the officer found eight photographs of men who resembled Cosenza.

The detective showed the lineup to M.H. on August 15. She pointed to Cosenza as the man who was in her apartment. The detective later conceded that he probably told M.H. right after she made the identification that Cosenza was a resident of the apartment complex.

Later that day, M.H. said that she recognized Cosenza from the apartment complex. She also amended her description of her attacker. She said he was of medium height and build, and had no tattoos. She clarified that medium height was around 5 feet 10 inches tall.

Although Cosenza was only 5 feet 3 inches tall and had a tattoo, he was arrested and charged with assault with attempt to commit rape, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and armed burglary.

Later on the day of the attack, M.H.’s sister, P.O., gathered up some of M.H.’s clothing to bring to the home of M.H.’s niece, R.R., where M.H. was staying. The following day, M.O., P.O.’s son and M.H.’s nephew, moved into M.H.’s apartment to stay with her cats and occupy it until the lease expired in September. On August 16, two days after the attack, M.H. went back to the apartment to retrieve more clothes.

A few weeks after the attack, M.H. returned a second time and gathered a bag of clothing. In mid-September, M.H. emptied the bag to do laundry, and found a pair of men’s shorts. She immediately suspected that they belonged to her attacker. Her nephew, M.O., told her that the shorts were not his. Likewise, none of the other men M.H. knew recognized the shorts. Evidence would later show that at some point before the discovery of the shorts, M.O.’s brother, and two friends from New York, Chad Johnson and Wesley Rufus, had stayed overnight at the apartment. M.O. and his brother said the shorts were not theirs. Neither the prosecution nor Cosenza’s defense attorney spoke to Johnson or Rufus about the shorts prior to trial.

The shorts were sent to the Massachusetts State Police crime lab. Analysts detected semen and performed a DNA analysis. A male DNA profile was developed, but it was not Cosenza’s DNA.

Before trial, Cosenza’s defense attorney sought to suppress M.H.’s identification of him on the ground that the photo array was suggestive. The defense pointed out that the detective who conducted the lineup had not received any training in conducting an array, and showed the photographs at the same time instead of sequentially. Moreover, the detective who conducted the lineup knew that Cosenza was a suspect and did not tell M.H. that the suspect might not be in the lineup. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing.

Cosenza’s attorney then filed a motion to allow Steven Penrod, an eyewitness identification expert, to testify about the various factors present in the case that contributed to the suggestiveness of the identification procedure so that the jury could properly evaluate its reliability. That motion was denied as well.

On June 19, 2002, Cosenza went to trial in Worcester County Superior Court. M.H. testified and identified Cosenza as her attacker. The defense presented the DNA evidence excluding Cosenza as the source of the semen on the shorts, as well as evidence that M.O. and his brother did not own the shorts. The prosecution argued that the shorts could have been left behind by either Johnson or Rufus.

On June 28, 2002, the jury convicted Cosenza of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and armed burglary. It acquitted him of assault with the intent to commit rape. He was sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison.

In October 2003, Cosenza, represented by a new attorney, Chauncey Wood, filed a motion for a new trial on the ground that his trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. The motion cited sworn statements from Rufus and Johnson who said that the shorts were not theirs. They further said that they had stayed in the apartment’s living room and never went into the bedroom where M.H. found the shorts. After a hearing, the motion for new trial was denied in 2004.

In 2006, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld Cosenza’s convictions as well as the ruling denying a new trial. Cosenza filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but that too was denied.

In the fall of 2011, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court created the Study Group on Eyewitness Identification to “offer guidance as to how our courts can most effectively deter unnecessarily suggestive identification procedures and minimize the risk of a wrongful conviction.” In 2013, the Study Group issued a report summarizing the scientific research on the various ways eyewitness identification can be unreliable. The report contained several recommendations for improving eyewitness identification procedures.

Attorney Wood, along with co-counsel Matthew Malm and Ira Gant at the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program, then filed a motion for a new trial, supported by an amicus letter from the Innocence Project and the New England Innocence Project. The motion argued that the Study Group report had acknowledged that the factors Cosenza’s trial counsel had attempted to introduce expert testimony about were relevant to evaluating the reliability of the eyewitness identification. The motion also noted that one of the experts consulted for the Study Group report was Dr. Penrod—the same expert that Cosenza’s attorney unsuccessfully sought to call as a witness at Cosenza’s trial.

On May 31, 2016, Superior Court Judge Richard Tucker vacated Cosenza’s convictions and granted him a new trial. “Here, I find and rule that the testimony of Dr. Penrod, had it been admitted at the trial, would have been a ‘real factor’ in the jury’s deliberations and that there is a substantial risk that the jury would have reached a different conclusion,” Judge Tucker declared. Cosenza was released on bond, pending a retrial.

Paul Rudof, an attorney with the Committee for Public Council Services, then took over the case and challenged M.H.’s identification. In August 2017, a judge ruled that the identification was the result of a suggestive lineup procedure and barred its use at a retrial. On November 14, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 11/29/2017
State:Massachusetts
County:Worcester
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:2000
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:12 to 20 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No