Convicted of larceny and robbery in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in 1928 after five women identified him as the bag-snatcher who had robbed them, Benjamin F. Collins was exonerated five days later as a result of the arrest of the actual culprit. Collins had received a sentence of two and one-half years.
Throughout the months of July, August, and the early part of September, 1928, there were about 40 successful and unsuccessful attempts at bag-snatching from women in Somerville, Massachusetts. As a result, the police had approximately 50 plain-clothes detectives observing the area. On September 1, 1928, the purse of Mildred King of West Somerville was snatched, and the description matched the one given by the other victims. The police were looking for a stocky man about 30 years of age with surprising speed and agility for his build. They reported that he always wore a cap and usually appeared in work clothes. About 20 minutes after the crime occurred, the undercover street police found a 48-year-old man named Benjamin F. Collins a few blocks away who fit the description. During questioning, he stated that he worked as a dishwasher at the Woodbridge Hotel on College Avenue in West Somerville, and he had gone out on the street to a soda fountain to get a glass of ginger ale due to the hot weather. Although King’s purse had contained $5.25 in cash and a $10 fountain pen, Collins was searched and found to have only ten cents in his possession. His room was then searched, but none of the stolen purses or articles were found. Regardless, he was taken to the Somerville police station and held for identification by the victims.
Five victims, Carrie M. Decker, Cecelia Ketter, Mildred King, Marion P. Jackson, and Catherine Davis separately identified him as the man who had taken their purses. Collins was arrested, and on September 10, 1928, a total of three indictments were returned against him by the Grand Jury, one charging larceny and two charging robbery. The larceny indictment had seven counts. On October 23, 1928, Collins was convicted of robbery and four counts of larceny and sentenced by the judge of the Superior Court for East Cambridge, Massachusetts Patrick M. Keating.
The police did not believe that they had the right man, and Officer Augustin J. Fitzpatrick, who was in charge of the investigation for the Somerville police, repeatedly told Assistant District Attorney Richard S. McCabe, who conducted the prosecution, that he was not certain that Collins was the man responsible for the crimes. None of the goods had been found in his possession, he had no criminal record, was the sole provider for his aged mother, and was a quiet and unobtrusive person.
On the Saturday following the sentencing, October 27, 1928, another handbag was grabbed from a woman in the same general neighborhood. The police shot the culprit, George Hill. Hill was found to have some of the stolen articles on his person and in his room in Medford, and was arrested. A motion for a new trial was granted, and on October 30, the charges were dropped and Collins was released. Hill pleaded guilty to the robberies, was sentenced to prison, and died of septic poisoning from the gunshot wound.
A bill was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature to compensate Collins in the amount of $1,000, but it was denied. The argument was that the state could not be required to bear expenses that should fall upon the counties.
- Breanna N. Kantor
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.