In February 1980, someone entered the apartment of a Lowell, Massachusetts woman and bludgeoned her to death. Roland Phinney, a neighbor, was known around Lowell as a peeping tom, and police brought him in for questioning. No arrests were made until the case was reopened in 1989. Phinney was questioned again, and police found a camera with a flash attachment in his home. After 12 hours of questioning, Phinney, who is borderline intellectually disabled, signed a written confession in which he stated that he had entered the victim’s home to take a picture of her, but she woke up when he tried to pull down her underwear and he panicked, killing her with his camera. Though Phinney recanted his confession at trial, the judge allowed the jury to hear it. Experts testified that Phinney’s camera could have been the murder weapon, though no blood was found on the camera and no other physical evidence connected Phinney to the crime. In October 1990, a jury convicted Phinney of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Years after his conviction, it was discovered that prosecutors concealed critical evidence from Phinney’s defense attorney: a police report provided detailed information about another possible suspect, including a statement from the suspect’s wife that he came home the night of murder with blood on his clothes. In 2003, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge vacated Phinney’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Phinney remained in jail while the District Attorney’s Office appealed. In March 2006, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the lower court’s decision to grant a new trial, and in June 2006, Phinney was released on bond. He was retried by a jury in March 2008, and acquitted.
- Stephanie Denzel