A close call

Another suspect was nearly charged with the Gallagher shooting
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 6, 2008

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Framed? The Boston Police investigation of Stephan Cowans led to a wrongful conviction. Was it incompetent — or corrupt? By David S. Bernstein.
In boasting of rising homicide-conviction rates two years ago, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley took a swipe at how the Boston Police Department used to operate: Conley said that, unlike the days when detectives “worked backward” from a suspect, his team now “builds from the evidence,” and thus brings better cases to trial. He reiterated the point last year, warning of a return to the bad old days after BPD Commissioner Ed Davis replaced the head of the homicide unit, Daniel Coleman. “I’m not willing to prosecute cases that have not been thoroughly investigated,” Conley railed.

The process of working backward, trying to fit the facts of a case around a convenient suspect, may have played a role in the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans. It may also have been at work in the earlier pursuit of the only other person questioned as a suspect in the Gregory Gallagher shooting — a man arrested, interrogated, and accused, but ultimately spared Cowans’s ordeal.

Bernard LaBranche’s name first surfaced in connection with the investigation a week after the shooting, when an anonymous caller to the department’s hotline claimed that the small-time criminal LaBranche had shot Gallagher.

It was one of many tips that came to the department after the incident, but, in some ways, LaBranche seemed to be a legitimate suspect. Physically, he fit witnesses’ descriptions. (That included a light goatee, as Gallagher had described at first, although later he dropped the mention of a goatee when describing the shooter.) And while he did not live in the immediate area of the shooting incident — and was known to hang out far away, on Wilcox Street in Mattapan — LaBranche did have a lengthy record of arrests throughout the Boston area, including busts in Dorchester, West Roxbury, East Boston, Braintree, Quincy, and Brookline — mostly for shoplifting, drugs, and driving with a suspended license.

The hotline tip was forwarded to Paul Farrahar, chief of the BPD’s homicide unit, who sent it along to Herbert Spellman, the detective leading the investigation. That same day, June 6, 1997, Robert Foilb, supervisor of the department’s fingerprint unit, printed out LaBranche’s fingerprints from the BPD’s computer file and left them for Rosemary McLaughlin, along with a note: “Rosie, Suspect from School St. J.P. from Sgt. Spellman.”

LaBranche’s fingerprints do not match either of the prints from the glass, according to a forensic fingerprint examiner who reviewed them for the Phoenix. But there is no record among the case-file documents seen by the Phoenix that suggest whether McLaughlin, or any other fingerprint examiner, reached a conclusion about a possible match to LaBranche.

Nevertheless, the next day, June 7, detectives showed a photo array including LaBranche to witnesses; he was the first suspect to get that treatment. But none of those eyewitnesses — Bonnie Lacy, her son Bryant McEwen, nor Gallagher himself — picked him out; in fact, all three said that the shooter looked a little like one of the other photos.

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Related: Truth, Justice — or the Boston Way, Framed?, More than a few loose ends, More more >
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