Stephan Cowans spent nearly seven of his 37 years of life behind bars, locked up for a crime he did not commit. Exonerated in January 2004, Cowans sued and ultimately received a $3.2 million settlement from the city of Boston in 2006. This past October, he was shot dead in his Randolph home — likely by someone seeking part of his wrongful-conviction payday, according to his family and close friends.
Cowans never learned how, or why, he came to be blamed for the non-fatal shooting of Boston police officer Gregory Gallagher in 1997. Now, the Boston Phoenix has uncovered substantial new information about the Cowans case. These revelations are troubling, as they suggest that key members of the Boston Police Department (BPD) knew that Cowans was innocent, even as they forged the case to prosecute him.
The Phoenix has reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including contents of the original investigative file, and interviewed many sources close to the case. For a variety of reasons, certain case materials, physical evidence, and potential witnesses were not available. Nonetheless, the picture that has emerged is one in which some BPD officers appear to have perjured themselves, and/or concealed evidence, hidden what they knew, and even falsified documents. Officers may have been aware of Cowans’s innocence — some of them may even have known who the real shooter was, and for whatever reason, worked to protect him.
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.