By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 28, 2010

Fingering Cowans
With Gallagher at best initially uncertain about his identification — and knowing now that the fingerprint was never a match — the obvious question is: what made police pin the shooting on Cowans in the first place?

The answer is remarkably flimsy, particularly considering the multiple other leads that investigators had received. (For more on another suspect who was nearly charged with the shooting, see “A Close Call.")

Cowans’s name first arose, according to police reports and testimony, the evening of June 10, 1997, almost two weeks after the incident. It came, according to detectives, from a woman who did not claim to know anything about the shooting, and who never again spoke to anyone involved with the case: she was not brought to a police station nor headquarters for an interview, did not testify to the grand jury, never spoke with the prosecutor, and did not testify at Cowans’s trial.

Two detectives from Gallagher’s precinct — Sergeant Detective Kevin Waggett and Detective John Callahan — say that they spoke with Nilsa “Niecie” Perez, who lived in an apartment on Dixwell Street near where Gallagher initially began chasing the suspect.

Cowans had a connection to Perez: she served as an intermediary to allow Cowans to visit his son. Cowans would meet his former girlfriend Desirae Jefferson and their child at Perez’s apartment every three weeks or so.

Waggett and Callahan, according to their report and testimony, gave Perez a general description of the shooter. According to Waggett’s 1998 trial testimony, he also described for Perez a distinctive hat, with a CK (Calvin Klein) emblem, that the shooter left behind in the yard, at which point Perez gave them Cowans’s name.

Waggett’s testimony gave the impression that Perez named Cowans because she knew him to wear that hat. We know now that Cowans did not (he preferred tight-fitting, Speedo-style headwear). So, did Perez fabricate the connection, or did Waggett?

Although we could find no contemporaneous notes of that June 10 conversation with Perez, Callahan wrote a report about it four days later. In that report, Callahan included neither Perez’s real name (Nilsa) nor her birth date, which he typically included in similar reports. Nor did he mention anything about the detail of the cap prompting her to name Cowans.

Callahan himself never testified about the Perez interview — not for the grand jury, and not at the trial.

In 2004, when interviewed by the AG’s investigators, Waggett himself said nothing about the cap that, at the trial, he said had triggered Perez to name Cowans. In fact, in that account, he said that Perez gave him only the name Stephan, and knew neither Cowans’s last name nor address, according to a source who has seen the interview notes. Waggett said he used the BPD computer to come up with the last name “Cowans.”

However he got Cowans’s name, Waggett then gave it directly to the ID unit — not to the lead detectives on the case, as would have been proper procedure — to check for a fingerprint match.

This brought into the story the now-notorious latent-fingerprint unit, which, following Cowans’s exoneration, was exposed as a bastion of sloppiness and incompetence, and a dumping ground for problem cops unfit for street duty.

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