CONVICTIONS OF INNOCENT PERSONS IN MASSACHUSETTS:
Stanley Z. Fisher
Boston University School of Law Working Paper 02-13
Scholars documenting the incidence and causes of wrongful
convictions in the United States have focused on cases arising all across
the country. Because reform of the practices that lead to such errors
of justice must largely take place on the state level, there is value
in examining wrongful convictions in particular jurisdictions. This article
attempts to identify and briefly describe all known cases of conviction
of innocent persons in Massachusetts from 1800 to the present time. Part
I discusses the criteria for identifying "the innocent." For
the purpose of gaining support for needed reforms in the law, the most
persuasive cases are "undisputed" exonerations, in which responsible
judicial or executive officials have endorsed the prisoner's factual innocence.
Part II identifies and describes fifteen such cases, including four exonerations
by DNA evidence. However, confining attention to "undisputed"
exonerations excessively narrows the inquiry by excluding legislative
exonerations, and other cases which most cautious observers would view
as involving conviction of the innocent. Therefore, Part II describes
eighteen additional cases in which official endorsement was lacking: a
group of twelve cases (including two involving DNA evidence) in which
the prisoner's conviction was vacated under circumstances raising strong
doubts as to factual guilt, and a group of six cases, also characterized
by such doubts, in which the convict was either executed or died in prison.
Part III explores the implications of these cases for law reform. Although
only thirty three cases were found, some greater unknowable number of
miscarriages undoubtedly exists. Over half of the Massachusetts wrongful
convictions involved capital crimes, including three in which the exonerations
were undisputed. Most of the prisoners served substantial sentences before
being released. Two died in prison, and four were executed. In keeping
with the data derived from nationwide studies, over half of the Massachusetts
wrongful convictions involved mistaken identification. Other prominent
causal factors in the Massachusetts cases included suppression of exculpatory
evidence, police misconduct and witness perjury
Some of the procedural reform needs suggested by these cases include adoption
of nationally-recognized safeguards in the conduct of eyewitness identification
procedures, more rigorous requirements for the contemporaneous recording
of police investigative interviews, and structured prosecution access
to both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence gathered by the police. The
cases also demonstrate the need for legislation authorizing state compensation
and rehabilitative services for exonerated prisoners, and an Innocence
Protection Act that would regulate the procedural rights of prisoners
seeking to establish their innocence through DNA or other forensic testing.
Finally, in order to learn from the system's tragic mistakes, Massachusetts
should follow the example of jurisdictions that have appointed official
commissions to investigate the causes of particular miscarriages of justice.
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Stanley Z. Fisher Contact Information
Boston University School of Law
765 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215
Presentation and Publication Information:
This article will appear in Vol. 12, Boston University Public Interest
Law Journal (2002-03)
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