By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 28, 2010

What were the results of all this activity? No disciplinary action (although two officers in the fingerprint unit resigned), no charges, and no public accusation or acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

The only public explanation that has been offered is a brief mention included in a “Justice Initiative” report in 2006, signed by both then-AG Thomas Reilly and DA Daniel Conley. After examining 15 wrongful convictions — all but four in Boston — Reilly and the state’s DAs concluded that they “did not suggest a present systems failure,” and laid most of the blame vaguely on “erroneous eyewitness identifications.”

In the only specific reference to Cowans, the report said that “the Commonwealth’s fingerprint evidence was flawed.”

Such comments fail to acknowledge what the BPD itself concluded more than two years earlier — that the fingerprint evidence was not flawed, but deliberately manipulated and lied about in court.

Defense attorneys who have fought wrongful-conviction cases say that without a more honest and thorough explanation, the public and law-enforcement officials alike cannot know whether a “present systems failure” exists.

Robert Feldman, a Boston attorney who helped free Cowans, says: “If we are going to improve the system — a system we rely on to both keep us safe and keep us free from enduring what Stephan Cowans endured — we need to fully understand why the system fails.”

Officer down
Cowans was no angel back in 1997, but he was no gangbanger, either. Handsome and 26 years of age, with a young child, he had no violent history. (In fact, he told his defense attorney he was afraid of guns.) Cowans was a habitual shoplifter, both for goods he used personally (he took great pride in his appearance and wardrobe, those who knew him say) and to sell on the streets around Codman Square in Dorchester. He also used the money he earned from selling the stolen goods to buy marijuana, and sometimes cocaine, for himself.

Cowans was on his way to one of those shoplifting sprees, heading with a friend to the CambridgeSide Galleria mall, when officer Greg Gallagher gave chase to a suspect in Jamaica Plain, leading eventually to a fenced-in back yard. Once in that yard, Gallagher and the suspect clashed, and Gallagher was shot once in the lower back, and once in the left buttock.

Three weeks after the shooting, police picked up Cowans and accused him of the crime. At his trial a year later, they put forward a case so convincing that Cowans himself later admitted that, had he been on the jury, he, too, would have voted to convict.

The erroneous fingerprint match, while essential to the case against Cowans, was not the only compelling-but-questionable evidence against Cowans presented to the jury. The Phoenix review suggests that officers also gave untruthful testimony that helped seal Cowans’s fate.

Even a central element of Gallagher’s story — that he was shot with his own weapon after a struggle — may have been a fiction.

Gallagher’s tale of a prolonged struggle — ending with the shooter wresting Gallagher’s gun from his holster and shooting him with it — made Gallagher’s identification of Cowans more compelling. That ID, along with the fingerprint, was the main evidence against Cowans. The extensive face-to-face look at the shooter during the fray added credibility to Gallagher’s testimony that there was no doubt — “none at all” — that Cowans was the man who shot him.

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