BU Today

In the World

Fighting Wrongful Convictions

BU law students focus on freeing the innocent


Law students Alexander Knapp (LAW’10), Sophie Clavet (LAW’10), and David Levine (LAW’10) are researching the merits of a wrongful conviction case the New England Innocence Project is considering for representation. Photos by Vernon Doucette, Kalman Zabarsky, Ulki Holz, and Boston.com

Stanley Fisher slides open a cabinet door in his office and reveals a couple of file boxes, generic cardboard containers. Inside lies the fate of several souls, New England prisoners who claim they’ve been falsely incarcerated.

This semester Fisher, a School of Law professor of law, and his students have been sifting through the boxes full of court transcripts, police records, and lab reports. They are helping to determine whether the prisoners’ cases ought to be accepted by the New England Innocence Project (NEIP), which has freed more than a dozen innocent inmates since 2000.

“I have one case with one box, another with two boxes, and another with five boxes,” says Fisher, a founder of NEIP and now a trustee.

He slides the door closed and returns to his desk. Looking on from a corner of his ninth-floor office is Dennis Maher. Fisher has invited Maher to speak that afternoon to the law students in his Wrongful Convictions seminar. Maher’s fate, too, once lay in such a box. The bushy-bearded mechanic spent 19 years behind bars for crimes he did not commit: two rapes and one attempted rape in 1983. Branded a serial rapist, Maher served most of his time at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for sexual offenders in the commonwealth’s Bridgewater Correctional Complex.

Maher (right) stands and admires the view from Fisher’s window, the inky ribbon of the Charles River, the lights on BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse, the shadows falling across the jumble of buildings that comprise East Cambridge. “I was released from that building there,” he says, pointing a thick finger. “The one with the orange stripe. Cambridge Courthouse. April 3, 2003” — thanks, in large part, to NEIP lawyers who discovered lost biological evidence in a courthouse basement.

Headquartered at the Boston law firm of Goodwin Procter, NEIP provides free legal representation to those suspected of having been wrongly convicted in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Law students play an important part.

“As the result of the investigation the student does,” Fisher says, “the Innocence Project decides whether there is grounds to appoint a lawyer and try and get the conviction reversed.”

The nation’s first exoneration of a convicted prisoner based on DNA evidence was in 1989 and led to a spate of voided convictions. NEIP this year expanded its scope to include cases where any new evidence has been discovered: false confessions, incompetent counsel or police work, witness recantations. “In many cases, you don’t have biological evidence, like with a drive-by shooting,” Fisher says. “With non-DNA cases, it’s much harder to convince the court they got the wrong person.”

The original Innocence Project, based in New York City, was started in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld (later part of O. J. Simpson’s defense team) at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law. In the first year, it received 5,000 letters from prisoners (including Maher). Scheck and Neufeld later reached out to law schools nationwide to enlist professors and students. Fisher heeded the call. Innocence Projects have since sprung up around the country.

Fisher’s interest in wrongful convictions began with the 1995 film In the Name of the Father. “I spent the next summer studying miscarriages of justice in the U.K. that gave rise to the film, which portrayed wrongful convictions, and ultimately exonerations, of alleged IRA agents who bombed pubs in England. That research led me to wonder whether wrongful convictions were a problem in this country.”

In 1997, Fisher (right) began offering a seminar at LAW that explored the convictions of innocent defendants, from the 19th-century’s Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France to the 200-plus prisoners in the United States so far exonerated by DNA evidence, 15 on death row. Topics include false confessions, suppression of evidence, the unreliability of eyewitness identifications, informant testimony, and “junk scientific” evidence, as well as postconviction remedies.

After helping form NEIP in 2000, Fisher affixed a sidecar to his seminar, a clinic that offers students a chance to roll up their sleeves and work on local and regional cases. After an NEIP paralegal examines applicants’ initial questionnaires, cases are assigned to law students for deeper investigation.

“This year I had 13 students who wanted to work on innocence cases,” Fisher says. “I was able to take six.”

Students scrutinize trial transcripts, forensic evidence, motions, and appeals and analyze the prosecution and defense theories. Finally, they conclude with a memorandum for NEIP’s Case Review Committee and participate in related discussions.

“It’s definitely stressful,” says David Levine (LAW’10). “Ultimately, students don’t make the final decision, but our opinions are given a lot of credence and we have to be very careful.”

Levine is part of a three-student team working on a first-degree murder case. The crime took place almost 15 years ago and the inmate is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Levine says. “I believe he is innocent of the crime he was prosecuted for.”

Fisher insists on strict confidentiality, so Levine and fellow researchers Sophie Clavet (LAW’10) and Alexander Knapp (LAW’10) cannot discuss many specifics of the case, not even where it took place.

Their work began with four 20-pound legal boxes.

“It’s become pretty evident that something was clearly afoot,” Levine says. “We have ineffective counsel, new DNA testing procedures that may reveal more evidence, a recanted witness, and possibly people who were never tested and should have been.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than two million people are serving time in the United States. Fisher estimates that between 2 percent and 5 percent are innocent, which works out to between 40,000 and 100,000 wrongly convicted citizens.

“No one becomes a great prosecutor by losing cases,” Knapp says. “You’re being evaluated by your bosses, so you want to deliver what’s considered the best thing, and that’s a conviction. That mentality has almost warped the responsibility of the prosecutor.”

The law students believe the conviction-driven culture of criminal prosecution needs to change. Levine says DNA testing, often challenged by prosecutors, should be unrestricted. Clavet thinks a better tracking system for DNA evidence should be put in place. She points out that defense lawyers, too, can fail their clients.

“You have to be humble and respect the rules and be completely involved, especially with a capital case,” she says. “There have been cases where you have lawyers sleeping at trial. It’s not always about police and prosecutors.”

Maher, taking a seat at the front of the seminar room, knows this well. He has come from work, still in his mechanic’s uniform. He has told his story countless times, testified before state legislatures, and been featured in the documentary After Innocence. But he still chokes up at key points in his narrative, including when he talks about his children, one of whom is named after his NEIP lawyer.

Maher was a 23-year-old U.S. Army sergeant at the time of his arrest in November 1983. Police were on the lookout for a serial rapist who had attacked two women in Lowell and one in Ayer. Maher happened to be wearing a similar hoodie and was stopped near one of the scenes. Cops found pot in his pocket and brought him to the station. He was soon standing in a lineup and fingered by one of the victims. A collection of mistakes — witness misidentification, shoddy police work, incompetent counsel, misplacement of evidence — brewed into a nightmare.

He was convicted at two jury trials in the spring of 1984 and sentenced to life. His trial attorney was disbarred soon after. Two years later, Maher was deemed a sexually violent predator and given a civil commitment of life at Bridgewater, which overrode his prison sentences. All of his motions, briefs, and appeals failed. “I came to the conclusion that I was going to die in prison an innocent man,” he says.

In 1993 came a faint ray of hope: the New York Innocence Project accepted his case. When NEIP was formed, it took over representation. But almost 10 years went by before a law student found long-misplaced biological evidence from the Lowell trial in the Middlesex Superior Court basement. In December 2002, DNA test results excluded Maher as the source of the semen on the evidence. The following February, a slide prepared from the rape kit of the Ayer victim was found at the police station. Maher was again ruled out.

“So NEIP lawyer Aliza Kaplan calls me on April 1, April Fools’ Day, and says, ‘When do you want go home?’” Maher recalls, tears rising in his eyes. “So I said, ‘How about April 3, because it’s going to take my parents a while to adjust that it’s over.’”

State Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley (LAW’79), who was then Middlesex County district attorney, called the convictions a “miscarriage of justice.” After 19 years in prison, Maher stepped out of the Cambridge Courthouse a free man. Before leaving, a court officer stopped him and said that the original prosecutor wanted a word.

“So I went over and he says, ‘I’m sorry for what happened,’ and I accepted his apology. It went a long ways to helping me get through what I went through. A lot of exonerees are angry and bitter and think society owes them something in return. I’m one of the few to have gotten an apology, and that helped me to live life.”

Maher works at Waste Management, in Woburn, Mass., as a mechanic, even though he has since received several million dollars in compensation and settlements. He is married and has two children; he spends his free time testifying about updating DNA laws and speaking out against the arrest-equals-conviction culture in many prosecutors’ offices.

One student asks whether he is still treated with suspicion once people hear his story.

“They are more shocked than anything else and say, ‘I can’t believe this happens,’” Maher answers. “Well, it does happen. There are 240 DNA exonerees and countless others who got out using a different road, through appeals or motions for new trials. It’s happened all over this country.

“Laws have to change, police departments have to change. You are the ones who can start the change.”

Visit here for an in-depth profile on Dennis Maher written in October, 2003, by then-Boston Globe reporter Dick Lehr, now a professor of journalism at COM.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


5 Comments on Fighting Wrongful Convictions

  • Anonymous on 12.14.2009 at 4:18 pm

    Pot in his pocket

    It struck me that after being found in a hoodie, ‘Cops found pot in his pocket’. Being picked up by cops for a marijuana possession was a key early step in a chain reaction that dominated his life. I am grateful that others may avoid this hard road of false conviction, because the voters of Massachussetts recently decriminalized posession of small amounts of marijuana. …… A harder issue is the attitude that guilty of one crime tends to get conflated in the minds of police and juries with the possibility this person is also guilty of other crimes. In one jury I was on, the longest discussion before we delivered a verdict of not guilty was — since this guy has a tatoo claiming to be a criminal, should we go ahead and convict him of this other crime, even though the evidence doesn’t indicate he did it? …. Another reason I am glad marijuana was decriminalized in this state. I don’t see a connection between a desire to ‘get high’ and a desire to be a serial rapist, but yet, that connection was made in Maher’s chain of conviction. ….. The legal system is full of slippery slopes, as the one pointed out where conviction records lead to career advancement for prosecutors. Another huge problem is that high incarceration rates lead to job opportunities for guards, lawyers, judges, clerks, police, etc. Everyone involved in the system gets job security out of high volumes of arrests and convictions – so the economics of our legal system are slanted towards wrongful arrest, wrongful conviction and a laboriously slow process of paperwork and court appearances. … I encourage readers, when you get a chance to vote, vote against the prosecution of crimes that don’t matter… Our nations policies towards drug use and prostitution have hurt MANY, MANY more people that they have helped. Do you doubt it? Try to think of a time when arresting and convicting these people made a real positive difference. …. and thanks for reading this.

  • Anonymous on 12.14.2009 at 4:46 pm

    Congradulations to you all. It’s a damn shame more can’t be done to help people in the system. Better still helping them before getting into the system. The largst business in the world is our criminal justice system. I spenta year in jail waiting for my opportunity to plead my case. The public defender had far too many cases to do a good defense. The president of a University interceded on my behalf and I was a stranger to him. He hired an attorney etc. Before long I was tried, found not guilty and released.

    Since then I have been a Director of several Pre-Release Programs in the Boston area and Program Director of a Homeless Shelter in Brockton. I also earned two degrees from Boston University, managed several programs and remarried. I also have three children and three stp children, along with eight grand children. I have returned to the University where I am a shift security supervisor.

    I thank my friend the president every day. Had it not been for him I never would surely have been a broken human being or worse. Please keep up the good work. I know how difficult and frustrating it is working with the criminal justice system. I have met many many people who work in the CJ system and they all agree as well.

  • cdanilof on 12.15.2009 at 4:00 pm

    Article on Wrongful Convictions

    I wanted to write to say you did a really good job on the article you wrote on "Wrongful Convictions". It is rare that people hear about this and I felt you did a good job educating those who may not know of the Innocence Project and/or exonarations due to DNA evidence.

    Valerie C.
    Maine Native Prison Project
    P.O. Box 431
    Orono, Maine 04473  USA

  • cdanilof on 12.16.2009 at 3:48 pm

    The New England Innocence Project

    The New England Innocence Project recently decided to accept selected non-DNA cases, so Alfred Trenkler has reapplied for assistance. A 1977 Wentworth Institute graduate, he was wrongly convicted in 1993 of building the 1991 Roslindale Bomb which tragically killed Boston Policeman, Jeremiah Hurley, Jr. and maimed his Bomb Squad partner, Francis Foley.
    As an advocate for Alfred Trenkler, and his co-defendant, Thomas A. Shay, I built the website for the case, http://www.alfredtrenklerinnocent.org and wrote the 729 manuscript, "Perfectly Innocent". See http://www.alfredtrenklerinnocent.org. Law professors Fran Miller and Stan Fisher have been helpful in the Campaign for Justice for Alfred Trenkler and Thomas A. Shay.

    Morrison  Bonpasse
    Alfred Trenkler Innocent Committee
    P.O. Box  390
    Newcastle, ME  04553

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2009 at 8:55 am


    One large problem preventing exonerations is prosecutors — the few whose misconduct causes wrongful convictions, and the many who use all their powers to prevent courts from hearing evidence that a convicted person is actually innocent.

    Even when it’s proved that a prosecutor used unlawful means to get a conviction, punitive legal action is so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

    The greatest problem however — one that encourages rogue prosecutors to win at all costs — is the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Imbler v. Pachtman (424 U.S. 409) which cloaks ALL prosecutors, regardless of their unlawful actions, in immunity from civil suit.

    Held: A state prosecuting attorney who, as here, acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution and in presenting the State’s case, is absolutely immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983 for alleged deprivations of the accused’s constitutional rights. Pp. 424 U. S. 417-431.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)