Framed?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 28, 2010

Certainly there are enough troubling signs in the late Cowans’s Kafkaesque ordeal to warrant investigation by the US Attorneys office. One former high-ranking Boston police officer, who reviewed the evidence for the Phoenix, also believes that the discoveries should prompt a criminal investigation into the officers involved.

The cover-up — or incompetence — continued after Cowans’s exoneration, leaving the identity of the shooter unknown to this day, and the shooting of a Boston police officer unsolved. In fact, one of the most noteworthy discoveries of the Phoenix’s reporting is what appears to be the forgery of police documents that surfaced after Cowans was found to have been innocent. These suggest a cover-up.

At the time of his release, authorities realized that fingerprints at the heart of the case against Cowans — lifted from a glass mug in a home where the shooter stopped to take a drink — did not match Cowans’s. But instead of using those fingerprints to find the real criminal, police managed to produce evidence that matched the prints to one innocent resident of the house, essentially taking out of consideration key physical evidence they may have had against the shooter.

We showed these documents — called “elimination fingerprint cards,” taken of the house residents — to a forensic handwriting analyst who concluded that the signatures on the documents were forged.

The facts of the case, that high-ranking police officer says, pose serious questions not only about the Cowans investigation, but about the integrity or competence of possibly thousands of investigations in which various of these officers would have been involved.

That would include many of the 15 wrongful convictions uncovered in Boston between 1995 and 2004.

Some of those cases date back decades. But other victims of wrongful convictions — Marlon Passley, Donnell Johnson, Anthony Powell, Shawn Drumgold, Christopher Harding, Neil Miller, and Marvin Miller — were prosecuted between 1988 and 1997. During that time, some officers at the heart of the Cowans case, including the department’s top homicide detective, the head of the ballistics unit, and several fingerprint examiners, were in key positions with the BPD.

What disturbs some political critics, as well as some defense attorneys, is that an unusually high number of botched police cases have not resulted in significant internal reform or any disciplinary action. This despite police conduct that a judge called “a fraud upon the court,” in Christopher Harding’s conviction, and that another judge, presiding over Donnell Johnson’s appeal, said “suggests either serious misconduct or negligence.”

In other cases of wrongful conviction, there was no effort made to answer tough questions about what went wrong. A feeble attempt was made in the wake of Cowans’s exoneration. But its inadequacy only underscores the rottenness of the system. And of all these cases, it is the Cowans conviction that raises the biggest questions about local law-enforcement officials’ ability to police themselves.

When Cowans was exonerated, and authorities quickly learned that the crime-scene fingerprint central to the case did not in fact match Cowans’s fingerprint, a flurry of investigations was unleashed: a Boston Police Department internal investigation; a state Attorney General (AG) criminal investigation before a grand jury; and a comprehensive review by the Suffolk County District Attorney (DA).

These investigations appear to have focused almost exclusively on questions about the erroneous fingerprint match, and failed to answer the broader questions of how, and why, police built their case against Cowans.

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