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
(617) 353-3124

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This article will appear in Vol. 12, Boston University Public Interest Law Journal (2002-03)

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