Boston agrees to pay $3.2 million to Stephan Cowans

Wrongfully-convicted Mattapan man’s case exposed incompetent fingerprint unit
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 10, 2006

Finally giving Stephan Cowans some measure of justice for the six and a half years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, the City of Boston has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a civil lawsuit, the Phoenix has learned. This is the second wrongful-conviction settlement -- both for the same sum -- that the city has agreed to this year.

The sides agreed to the settlement three weeks ago, and finalized it last Friday, according to documents filed in US District Court in Boston. A source in Mayor Thomas Menino’s office confirmed the amount of the settlement, but city spokespersons would not comment further, and attorneys for Cowans did not return calls.

Boston has now paid out more than $12 million in a little over a year to make amends for the misdeeds of its police officers. In May 2005, Boston agreed to pay $5.1 million to the family of Victoria Snellgrove, who was killed by police in a Red Sox post-pennant-clinching melee the previous October, and smaller sums to two others injured the same evening.

And the biggest payout may yet be looming: Shawn Drumgold, who served 15 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Tiffany Moore, has a January 2007 trial date for his federal suit against the city.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that the city of Boston is taking responsibility for the actions of the Boston Police Department in wrongfully convicting Stephan Cowans,” said Rosemary Scappicchio, Drumgold’s attorney, when told of the settlement.

Cowans was convicted in 1998 of shooting a Boston police officer in the leg, and was serving 35 to 45 years in prison when DNA evidence tested by the Innocence Project (a New York-based group of attorneys who advocate for wrongly-convicted inmates) cast doubt on his guilt. When his conviction was overturned in January 2004, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office initially vowed to re-try the case -- but two days later, after discovering that a key piece of fingerprint evidence did not actually match Cowans as police originally claimed, Dan Conley’s office reversed itself and declared Cowans innocent of the crime.

The Cowans case sent shock waves through the local law-enforcement community, eventually leading to the shuttering of the Boston Police Department’s latent fingerprint unit, and grand jury proceedings against the two BPD fingerprint examiners who testified at Cowans’s trial, although no criminal indictments resulted.

An outside forensics team hired by the department concluded that at least one of those officers, Dennis LeBlanc, knew that the fingerprint was not Cowans’s when he testified. LeBlanc and two other fingerprint examiners were named as co-defendants in the civil lawsuit, along with the city and the police department, and the homicide detectives who investigated the case.

In March, the city agreed to a $3.2 million settlement with Neil Miller, who served 10 years in prison for a rape that he did not commit. Miller was convicted in 1989; among the misconduct alleged in his lawsuit was the charge that police never told the prosecutor or defense that they had linked the rape to two other cases -- cases that Miller could not have committed.

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Related: Truth, Justice — or the Boston Way, More than a few loose ends, $50 million worth of mistakes, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Neil Miller, Stephan Cowans, Shawn Drumgold,  More more >
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