In August 1989, two men shot and wounded 27-year-old Deron Jones in a Boston, Massachusetts public housing development, and then fired on the police officers who pursued them.
One of the men, Dwayne Owens, surrendered at the scene. Officer Terence O’Neil pursued and arrested a second man, 36-year-old Christopher Harding, in an adjacent building.
O’Neil reported that he saw Harding shoot twice at Jones and once at the police before he threw down his gun and fled into the building.
A friend of Jones identified Harding as one of the shooters after he saw Harding under arrest in the back of a police car.
Harding claimed he had been sleeping in the stairwell of the building, which he often did when he was too drunk to go home. He said that O’Neil woke him up and arrested him. A witness who saw a different man with Owens around the time of the shooting supported Harding’s version of events.
At trial in Suffolk County Superior Court, the prosecution relied primarily upon the testimony of Officer O’Neil. Police supervisors claimed that O’Neil’s partner – who also had pursued the shooters – was out of town at the time of the trial and was unavailable to testify.
In May 1990, Harding was convicted of assault with intent to murder and sentenced to 10-to-12 years. He was released on parole in October 1995.
Two years later, in 1997, an unrelated federal investigation revealed that Robert Owens, Dwayne Owens’s cousin, may have been the other shooter, and that Harding’s conviction was the result of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Police supervisors had improperly ordered O’Neil’s partner to ignore a subpoena from the defense attorney, and had lied to the judge when they said that she was out of town. Police also lost the hat and jacket that were supposedly worn by the shooter, which Harding said he could have proven were not his.
Moreover, the investigation showed that O’Neil’s testimony was contradicted by a ballistics report. O’Neil also had disobeyed a court order by speaking to another police witness during the trial, who then allegedly changed his testimony.
The friend of Jones who had identified Harding, recanted his identification, and several witnesses came forward to support Harding’s alibi.
In December 1997, Superior Court Judge Vieri Volterra vacated Harding’s conviction and granted him a new trial. In January 1998, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office announced that it would not retry Harding.
In January 2000, Harding settled a lawsuit against the city of Boston for $480,000. Officer O’Neil was fired for “lying under oath and other breaches of department rules" during the Harding case. However, he later was reinstated and in 2014, his total earnings were $193,000.
- Stephanie Denzel