The state’s top prosecutors continue to insist that we don’t need an innocence commission, despite the two dozen or so wrongful convictions that have come to light. Roland Douglas Phinney Jr. might disagree.
Phinney, now 63 years old, has spent the past 16 years in prison, since being convicted in 1990 of murdering his 22-year-old neighbor, Marianne Alexander, in Lowell 10 years earlier. This week that conviction was overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court.
The murder of Alexander — a UMass Lowell student beaten to death with a blunt, rounded object — had gone unsolved until a Lowell detective, David Tousignant, reopened the case in 1989. In reviewing the file, he homed in on Phinney as the prime suspect. Phinney, a loner living with his mother next door to Alexander, apparently liked to take photographs of women, although he had never been accused of anything criminal and had a clean record, according to Phinney’s attorney, David Yanetti. “He liked to go to car shows and take pictures of models,” Yanetti says.
Tousignant’s theory was that Phinney broke into Alexander’s bedroom, tried to undress her to photograph her naked, and, when she woke up, beat her to death with the camera’s flash attachment.
Tousignant interrogated Phinney — who is borderline retarded — for eight hours, none of it recorded, and emerged with a written confession, which Phinney later recanted. The only piece of evidence was a dented camera found in Phinney’s home. Phinney’s mother testified that her son was home with her the night of the murder. Nevertheless, a jury convicted Phinney, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But there was more to the story. A year after the murder, a Lowell woman told police that she suspected that her husband, Mark Barger, might have had something to do with the Alexander murder. What could possibly have made her think that? For one, Barger arrived home the night of the murder after three in the morning and immediately washed the clothes he had worn to work, although he never did his own laundry.
According to those police reports, in the weeks leading up to the murder, Barger had become violent and moody. He claimed to know Alexander, and he had some connection to her friends. He carried an ax handle with him — which, after the murder, his wife never saw again. He would have walked past Alexander’s house on his way home from work that night. He had just missed a psychiatric appointment, and he supposedly had said, a week or two before the murder, “If I don’t kill myself, I’m going to kill someone.”
Investigators never followed up on Barger (or other potential suspects), and Phinney’s trial lawyer apparently never noticed the reports about him.
After Phinney’s first appeals lawyer discovered all this, Phinney won a ruling for a retrial in 2003 — but Middlesex County prosecutors appealed, leading to this week’s SJC decision.
“I am firmly convinced that he just didn’t do it, and that a terrible injustice has been done,” Yanetti says. Phinney remains in custody, while Middlesex DA Martha Coakley decides whether to retry him.