At 5pm on May 30, 1997, Stephan Cowans was sitting in a car, stuck in traffic with a friend on the way to doing some shopping in Cambridge.
STEPHAN COWANS: His wrongful conviction cost Boston taxpayers $3.2 million.
At the same time, in a backyard on School Street Place in Roxbury, someone shot a Boston police officer, Gregory Gallagher, in the rear end with the officer’s own gun.
A year later, a Suffolk County prosecutor convinced a jury that Cowans was the shooter. The only problem was that the evidence, though compelling, was false. Cowans didn’t do it. Nevertheless, he spent six and a half years in prison for the crime.
Two years ago, Cowans was exonerated. The City of Boston recently paid him $3.2 million to settle claims that the police department violated his civil rights. And, under the terms of its wrongful-conviction compensation law, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid him an additional $500,000.
That does not mean Boston officials have acknowledged any wrongdoing, let alone accepted culpability. Indeed, the city asserted in its official legal defense that “the injuries and damages alleged” — i.e., the pain, suffering, humiliation, Hepatitis C, and loss of income, family relations, personal freedom, and sex life that Cowans endured in prison — “were caused by the Plaintiff’s own intentional conduct.” Apparently his wrongful conviction had nothing to do with it.
The Cowans case, along with 12 other wrongful Suffolk County convictions that came to light between 1999 and 2004, sparked reform and internal investigation in local law enforcement. The Boston Police Department (BPD) shut down and restarted from scratch the latent-fingerprint unit that the Cowans case revealed as woefully inadequate. The BPD and Suffolk County District Attorney’s office adopted a new set of guidelines for obtaining eyewitness identifications. Many of the officers involved in the Cowans investigation retired from the force. Attorney General Thomas Reilly investigated possible criminal charges against police officers.
And yet, Boston residents still don’t really know what led to the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans.
Civil lawsuits like Cowans’s help dredge up dirty details about the police department’s inner workings. But even these lawsuits are met with antagonism, secrecy, and, eventually, settlement to keep the case and its truths out of open court. The city has paid out $6.4 million of your tax money this year in wrongful-conviction suits, with at least two more substantial cases pending, and yet they have never told you why, or what really caused the wrongful convictions of Shawn Drumgold, Neil Miller, Donnell Johnson, Ulysses Rodriguez Charles, Anthony Powell, Marlon Passley, and others.
With the truth still buried, the only thing most people know about the Cowans case is that it forced Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole to shutter the BPD fingerprint unit in disgrace. The Cowans case did expose that unit’s incompetence, but in much the same way a banging noise in the basement can lead to the discovery of termites — a problem, to be sure, but not the one you’re looking for.
Not an accident
The lack of training, certification, or qualifications in the latent-print unit had little or nothing to do with Cowans’s conviction. That is the consensus of the BPD’s command staff, their internal investigators, and the outside forensics consultants they brought in to investigate the incident, as well as Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley and Attorney General Tom Reilly.