Framed?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 28, 2010

It was Dennis LeBlanc of that unit who claimed to have first matched Cowans’s thumbprint to one from the crime scene, saying he did so on June 13, three days after Waggett and Callahan interviewed Perez. A second latent-print officer, Rosemary McLaughlin, claims to have verified the match the next day.

LeBlanc did not write a report about it, however, until the 24th — after Cowans had been charged with the shooting. McLaughlin, meanwhile, never put her verification in writing.

There is nothing in voluminous case records to indicate that Cowans’s prints were accessed from the BPD database prior to his arrest, either.

Regardless, detectives on the case then showed photo arrays, including Cowans’s photo, to witnesses. None of them picked him out, with the sole exception of Gallagher’s “most resembles” but “not positive” ID. None of the three members of the Lacy family — the occupants of the house into which the shooter ran — identified his photo. Neither did a young man who had witnessed the suspect being chased, and told police he had seen the man frequently in the area. Neither did even Benjamin Pitre, who had gotten a good look at the suspect from his window overlooking the yard, and who later testified that Cowans was the shooter. When first shown a photo array including Cowans, Pitre picked out one of the other faces as looking most like the shooter.

Cowans also didn’t fit any of the other leads identified in case documents reviewed by the Phoenix. And he had no history of carrying or using a gun.

Nevertheless, Waggett arrested Cowans on an old, outstanding warrant, and handed him over to the lead detectives on the case, who interrogated him about the shooting — telling him, among other things, that they had his fingerprints at the crime scene and on the gun, as well as DNA, hair fiber, and other evidence. (Fabrications of this kind, to affect a confession, were not an unusual technique — indeed, these same detectives, interrogating another suspect in the Gallagher shooting a week earlier, told that suspect that they had surveillance video of him in the area at the time, which was not true.)

The only physical evidence ever produced against Cowans was the now-discredited fingerprint. Police never tested the DNA left at the crime scene, which turned out not to match Cowans’s when, six years later, his lawyers and the New York–based Innocence Project actually did the testing that the BPD never carried out.

It was that DNA testing that led to Cowans’s release in January 2004. The district attorney’s office vowed to retry him, but within hours discovered that the manipulated fingerprint did not match Cowans, either.

Publicly, the department has blamed the erroneous match on an overall lack of training and professionalism in the BPD latent-fingerprint unit. That unit was ultimately shut down, and later restarted with qualified personnel.

But no official has ever acknowledged what an independent investigative team reported to then–Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole just weeks after the exoneration: that the false testimony about the fingerprint was no accident or mistake, but was deliberate.

082080_printss_main
OFF THE MARK: The chart Dennis LeBlanc presented in court looked solid, supposedly linking Cowans’s fingerprint (left) with one found near the scene. A review done for the BPD, however, showed it was doctored to fool the jury.

The fingerprint evidence
The shooter made an amazing getaway after wounding Gallagher, eluding the dozens of police who swarmed the area. He had scaled the fence to leave the yard, and seemed to have vanished.

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