Righting a staggering wrong

By EDITORIAL  |  February 6, 2008

The city’s lack of faith in the BPD was recorded even before residents had to endure a gut-wrenching parade of innocent men released from prison, where they had been wrongly sent by Boston police. Not one of these cases has been adequately explained. Not one officer has been disciplined for their actions in these cases.

It may be that none deserves to be. But city residents would have more confidence that all hands are clean were they provided with evidence that “every tool” has indeed been used to uncover wrongdoing.

At the height of public concern about Boston’s recent wrongful-conviction plague — just after the Cowans exoneration in 2004 — Reilly and the state’s district attorneys announced a “Justice Initiative” to examine the problem. Boston’s district attorney Daniel Conley and current attorney general Martha Coakley led the effort. They promised a report in 90 days; what they eventually released, two-and-a-half years later, could have been assembled in the bat of an eye.

In its introduction, the state’s top prosecutors wrote that “What was at stake was not only the integrity of individual prosecutions, but also the confidence of the public in the integrity of the system itself.”

Yet their conclusions, supposedly based on thorough reviews of all relevant cases, found no systemic issues, called wrongful convictions a problem of the distant past, held nobody accountable, and proposed no serious reforms.

If police conduct in the Cowans case had no other implications, Cowans’s story would already be the stuff of a Greek tragedy: an innocent man arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned; then exonerated, freed, and made a rich man by compensation for the wrong done to him; finally, in his new home, brutally killed by someone apparently seeking the money for which Cowans had so dearly paid.

But Cowans’s plight is about much more. It is about a city whose residents, surrounded by shootings, choose not to cooperate with police against those tormenting them; a city in which jurors acquit criminals despite the testimony of veteran officers; a city in which gang members shoot with impunity in broad daylight. It is about a city in which good, hard-working, honest cops can’t do their jobs because of the stain left by the bad ones.

Policing the police on behalf of Boston citizens will take effort and openness from the top — a fitting memorial to the memory of Stephan Cowans, who in life was no angel but who wrongfully suffered six-and-a-half years of unjust imprisonment for a shooting he did not commit. It’s time for the US Attorney to act.

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Related: Truth, Justice — or the Boston Way, Boston agrees to pay $3.2 million to Stephan Cowans, More than a few loose ends, More more >
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