The Phoenix

The Boston Police investigation of Stephan Cowans led to a wrongful conviction.
Was it incompetent — or corrupt?

2/7/2008 12:57:18 PM

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.

Some of those cases date back decades. But other victims of wrongful convictions — Marlon Passley, Donnell Johnson, Anthony Powell, Shawn Drumgold, Christopher Harding, Neil Miller, and Marvin Miller — were prosecuted between 1988 and 1997. During that time, some officers at the heart of the Cowans case, including the department’s top homicide detective, the head of the ballistics unit, and several fingerprint examiners, were in key positions with the BPD.

What disturbs some political critics, as well as some defense attorneys, is that an unusually high number of botched police cases have not resulted in significant internal reform or any disciplinary action. This despite police conduct that a judge called “a fraud upon the court,” in Christopher Harding’s conviction, and that another judge, presiding over Donnell Johnson’s appeal, said “suggests either serious misconduct or negligence.”

In other cases of wrongful conviction, there was no effort made to answer tough questions about what went wrong. A feeble attempt was made in the wake of Cowans’s exoneration. But its inadequacy only underscores the rottenness of the system. And of all these cases, it is the Cowans conviction that raises the biggest questions about local law-enforcement officials’ ability to police themselves.

When Cowans was exonerated, and authorities quickly learned that the crime-scene fingerprint central to the case did not in fact match Cowans’s fingerprint, a flurry of investigations was unleashed: a Boston Police Department internal investigation; a state Attorney General (AG) criminal investigation before a grand jury; and a comprehensive review by the Suffolk County District Attorney (DA).

These investigations appear to have focused almost exclusively on questions about the erroneous fingerprint match, and failed to answer the broader questions of how, and why, police built their case against Cowans.

What were the results of all this activity? No disciplinary action (although two officers in the fingerprint unit resigned), no charges, and no public accusation or acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

The only public explanation that has been offered is a brief mention included in a “Justice Initiative” report in 2006, signed by both then-AG Thomas Reilly and DA Daniel Conley. After examining 15 wrongful convictions — all but four in Boston — Reilly and the state’s DAs concluded that they “did not suggest a present systems failure,” and laid most of the blame vaguely on “erroneous eyewitness identifications.”

In the only specific reference to Cowans, the report said that “the Commonwealth’s fingerprint evidence was flawed.”

Such comments fail to acknowledge what the BPD itself concluded more than two years earlier — that the fingerprint evidence was not flawed, but deliberately manipulated and lied about in court.

Defense attorneys who have fought wrongful-conviction cases say that without a more honest and thorough explanation, the public and law-enforcement officials alike cannot know whether a “present systems failure” exists.

Robert Feldman, a Boston attorney who helped free Cowans, says: “If we are going to improve the system — a system we rely on to both keep us safe and keep us free from enduring what Stephan Cowans endured — we need to fully understand why the system fails.”

Officer down
Cowans was no angel back in 1997, but he was no gangbanger, either. Handsome and 26 years of age, with a young child, he had no violent history. (In fact, he told his defense attorney he was afraid of guns.) Cowans was a habitual shoplifter, both for goods he used personally (he took great pride in his appearance and wardrobe, those who knew him say) and to sell on the streets around Codman Square in Dorchester. He also used the money he earned from selling the stolen goods to buy marijuana, and sometimes cocaine, for himself.

Cowans was on his way to one of those shoplifting sprees, heading with a friend to the CambridgeSide Galleria mall, when officer Greg Gallagher gave chase to a suspect in Jamaica Plain, leading eventually to a fenced-in back yard. Once in that yard, Gallagher and the suspect clashed, and Gallagher was shot once in the lower back, and once in the left buttock.

Three weeks after the shooting, police picked up Cowans and accused him of the crime. At his trial a year later, they put forward a case so convincing that Cowans himself later admitted that, had he been on the jury, he, too, would have voted to convict.

The erroneous fingerprint match, while essential to the case against Cowans, was not the only compelling-but-questionable evidence against Cowans presented to the jury. The Phoenix review suggests that officers also gave untruthful testimony that helped seal Cowans’s fate.
Even a central element of Gallagher’s story — that he was shot with his own weapon after a struggle — may have been a fiction.

Gallagher’s tale of a prolonged struggle — ending with the shooter wresting Gallagher’s gun from his holster and shooting him with it — made Gallagher’s identification of Cowans more compelling. That ID, along with the fingerprint, was the main evidence against Cowans. The extensive face-to-face look at the shooter during the fray added credibility to Gallagher’s testimony that there was no doubt — “none at all” — that Cowans was the man who shot him.
But that version of the incident is refuted by an eyewitness to the shooting who spoke to the Phoenix, and does not appear to fit the timing of events.

Dirty deed, dirtier evidence
The incidents leading up to the Gallagher shooting began just after 5 pm on May 30, 1997. Gallagher, wary of the way a man was looking at two pre-teen girls on the opposite stoop, began following the suspect on foot down Dixwell Street near Egleston Square. This quickly turned into a chase, through a park to Columbus Avenue, then down Cleaves Street, a spot that ends in a 10-foot drop to School Street Place below it.

By the time Gallagher reached School Street Place, he was far enough behind that he had lost sight of the suspect. Gallagher initially walked down an alleyway between houses to his right, before a bystander informed him that the suspect had fled into a fenced-in yard behind 7 School Street Place, on the other side of the road. Gallagher then walked between houses, and peered through slats in a fence to confirm that the suspect was there.

That much of Gallagher’s story is largely corroborated by witnesses — what happened next is not.

According to Gallagher’s testimony, he climbed over the fence and approached the suspect, who attacked him. They began a lengthy hand-to-hand struggle, lasting between a minute-and-a-half to two minutes, he testified, wrestling each other around the yard until the suspect removed Gallagher’s gun from its holster, and raised it to shoot.

Gallagher testified that, as he scaled the fence to escape, the suspect fired two shots, hitting him with both. The suspect then continued firing Gallagher’s department-issued semi-automatic 9mm Glock, before jumping out of the yard.

But the tale of a lengthy struggle is inconsistent with tapes of Gallagher’s BPD radio communications, obtained by the Phoenix. Those demonstrate that only four seconds passed between Gallagher radioing that he was “in the backyard” — with no mention of trouble — and the first call that shots had been fired, followed shortly by a call for an officer shot.

It is also clear, from other officers’ radio transmissions, officers’ reports, and witness statements, that very little time elapsed between Gallagher reaching the yard and Gallagher being shot.

In fact, the eyewitness who saw the shooting from a neighboring window and spoke to the Phoenix tells a very different story than Gallagher’s — one that, records show, is consistent with what this same witness and another person in the same house earlier told police, in large part right after the shooting.

This witness — who asked for anonymity because of fear of retribution by the police — states emphatically that there was no struggle. The shooter was waiting, the witness says, with a gun already in hand, crouched in the back corner of the fenced-in yard when Gallagher entered. Gallagher had his own gun drawn — another witness says that Gallagher’s gun was already un-holstered and in his hand as he ran down School Street Place — and attempted a spinning entry to the yard after kicking down the gate section of the fence. The shooter, still crouched in the back corner, fired as Gallagher was turning. Upon being hit, the witness says, Gallagher dropped his gun and staggered out to the driveway, after which the shooter picked up Gallagher’s weapon and began firing it.

If this account given to the Phoenix is accurate, Gallagher would not have gotten the close look at the suspect that he described to the jury. Without that claim, Gallagher’s ID, and the case against Cowans, would have been far weaker.

At least two other witnesses gave accounts to police, contained in reports in the case file, that are closer to this description of events, including the detail of the shooter waiting, crouched, with a gun already drawn. No witnesses claimed to see the two men struggle in the fenced-in yard, or to see the shooter take the gun from the officer.

And initially, Gallagher was not nearly as certain of his identification as he claimed to be in court.

When Cowans’s name first surfaced as a suspect, Gallagher said only that Cowans’s photo “most resembles” the person who shot him, out of eight faces in a photo array, and that he “was not positive.” He asked to view Cowans in a live line-up. The line-up was not arranged until more than two weeks later, when the grand jury considering the case against Cowans specifically requested it. By that time, Cowans’s face was familiar to anyone who read or watched the news in Boston; Gallagher picked him from an eight-man line-up, and the grand jury indicted Cowans the next day.

In identifying Cowans, Gallagher was also deviating from the widely reported claim that the suspect was someone Gallagher had dealt with before.

Shortly after the shooting, BPD Superintendent Robert Faherty told the Boston Globe that Gallagher had seen the same suspect twice earlier that same day. Gallagher’s sister told the Boston Herald, the day after the shooting, that the shooter was well-known to her brother: “He knew this guy,” she is quoted as saying. “They’d had problems before.”

A former BPD officer who knew Gallagher at the time and asked not to be identified recalls Gallagher telling him at the beginning of the investigation that the shooter was someone he was familiar with, but did not know his name.

That was all before Cowans — with whom Gallagher had never previously had contact — became a suspect. At Cowans’s trial, Gallagher testified that he had never seen the shooter before this incident.

The former BPD officer says that Gallagher’s demeanor changed dramatically after Cowans became a suspect, two weeks after the shooting. He suspects that Gallagher may have been talked into going along with the case against Cowans, perhaps ultimately coming to believe the (later to be proved erroneous) fingerprint match over his own eyes and recollections.

“Gallagher was really ready to go forward, get the right guy,” the officer says. “Then when they came up with [Cowans], it seemed like he was unwilling to talk about it any more. I sensed that something was wrong.”

Cowans Graffiti Wall

Missing bullets
Gallagher’s tale of being shot after having his gun wrestled away was backed up by the testimony of Mark Vickers, then the head of the BPD ballistics unit. He collected, stored, and examined bullets and shell casings from the crime scene, and claimed that all of the shots were fired by Gallagher’s Glock. That would seem to rule out the scenario described above, in which the suspect used his own gun to shoot Gallagher, then picked up the dropped Glock and fired rounds from it.

But it turns out that Vickers was basing his conclusion only on casings and bullet fragments found where the shooter would have picked up Gallagher’s dropped weapon. Incredibly, nobody, including Vickers, ever examined either of the two bullets that actually hit Gallagher.

Vickers was named head of the ballistics unit, despite having received no special training since being transferred there, from the gang unit, three years earlier. He was removed from ballistics in 2004 amid concerns of mishandling evidence and, according to sources, charges of drug use.

“He’s had some problems over the years, connected with drugs and alcohol,” says the former high-ranking officer. “They moved him in there [to ballistics] to get him off of the street.”

Vickers’s name also surfaced in the 2006 federal trial of former BPD officer Roberto Pulido, who ultimately pled guilty to charges of providing protection for a drug shipment. Reportedly, testimony in that trial included claims that Vickers made money throwing gambling parties for officers, in competition with drug parties run by Pulido. (The BPD says that it is looking into those accusations.)

Following the Gallagher shooting, Vickers testified that all the shots fired came from Gallagher’s Glock.

But, even according to his own notes, reports, and testimony, Vickers never examined either of the two bullets that actually struck Gallagher — the two that, according to the witness, were fired from the shooter’s own weapon, before he began firing the Glock that Gallagher dropped.

One of those two bullets struck Gallagher in the left buttock. The emergency medical technicians did not find an exit wound, meaning that the bullet remained in him. It should have been retrieved during his surgery at Boston Medical Center, and given to the BPD ballistics team as evidence.

Vickers’s notes make no record of that bullet, and the medical record of Gallagher’s treatment is missing from the scores of documents, covering all aspects of the investigation of the shooting, provided by the BPD to Cowans’s attorneys in his civil lawsuit. The BPD, citing medical privacy reasons, would not even tell the Phoenix whether the department had a medical record of Gallagher’s treatment.

Police officers, including Gallagher, testified at Cowans’s trial that the buttock wound was a “through-and-through” — that the bullet passed through and exited Gallagher’s left thigh. This contradicts the EMTs’ report and testimony. Nor did the bullet turn up among the ballistics evidence documented by police in the thoroughly searched yard.

The second bullet, which struck Gallagher in the lower back, was stopped by his bulletproof vest. Although the vest was forwarded to the BPD ballistics unit, with instructions to cut it open to examine the bullet, Vickers left it alone. Not only do Vickers’ notes and reports from the case never mention the second bullet, but at Cowans’s trial, the bullet was still lodged in the vest, and sources tell the Phoenix that it remains there today. District Attorney Conley denied a Phoenix request to examine this evidence, to determine whether the bullet is the same type and brand as the department-issued ammunition used in Gallagher’s Glock that day.

The failure to remove and examine the bullet — particularly in what was an extremely high-profile case of a cop shooting — baffles local law-enforcement officials, including one former Suffolk County prosecutor, who, when shown the Vickers reports and testimony, expressed shock that this central piece of ballistics evidence was never examined. One former BPD officer tells the Phoenix it is “an unbelievable oversight — or something worse.”

Fingering Cowans
With Gallagher at best initially uncertain about his identification — and knowing now that the fingerprint was never a match — the obvious question is: what made police pin the shooting on Cowans in the first place?

The answer is remarkably flimsy, particularly considering the multiple other leads that investigators had received. (For more on another suspect who was nearly charged with the shooting, see “A Close Call.")

Cowans’s name first arose, according to police reports and testimony, the evening of June 10, 1997, almost two weeks after the incident. It came, according to detectives, from a woman who did not claim to know anything about the shooting, and who never again spoke to anyone involved with the case: she was not brought to a police station nor headquarters for an interview, did not testify to the grand jury, never spoke with the prosecutor, and did not testify at Cowans’s trial.

Two detectives from Gallagher’s precinct — Sergeant Detective Kevin Waggett and Detective John Callahan — say that they spoke with Nilsa “Niecie” Perez, who lived in an apartment on Dixwell Street near where Gallagher initially began chasing the suspect.

Cowans had a connection to Perez: she served as an intermediary to allow Cowans to visit his son. Cowans would meet his former girlfriend Desirae Jefferson and their child at Perez’s apartment every three weeks or so.

Waggett and Callahan, according to their report and testimony, gave Perez a general description of the shooter. According to Waggett’s 1998 trial testimony, he also described for Perez a distinctive hat, with a CK (Calvin Klein) emblem, that the shooter left behind in the yard, at which point Perez gave them Cowans’s name.

Waggett’s testimony gave the impression that Perez named Cowans because she knew him to wear that hat. We know now that Cowans did not (he preferred tight-fitting, Speedo-style headwear). So, did Perez fabricate the connection, or did Waggett?

Although we could find no contemporaneous notes of that June 10 conversation with Perez, Callahan wrote a report about it four days later. In that report, Callahan included neither Perez’s real name (Nilsa) nor her birth date, which he typically included in similar reports. Nor did he mention anything about the detail of the cap prompting her to name Cowans.

Callahan himself never testified about the Perez interview — not for the grand jury, and not at the trial.

In 2004, when interviewed by the AG’s investigators, Waggett himself said nothing about the cap that, at the trial, he said had triggered Perez to name Cowans. In fact, in that account, he said that Perez gave him only the name Stephan, and knew neither Cowans’s last name nor address, according to a source who has seen the interview notes. Waggett said he used the BPD computer to come up with the last name “Cowans.”

However he got Cowans’s name, Waggett then gave it directly to the ID unit — not to the lead detectives on the case, as would have been proper procedure — to check for a fingerprint match.

This brought into the story the now-notorious latent-fingerprint unit, which, following Cowans’s exoneration, was exposed as a bastion of sloppiness and incompetence, and a dumping ground for problem cops unfit for street duty.

It was Dennis LeBlanc of that unit who claimed to have first matched Cowans’s thumbprint to one from the crime scene, saying he did so on June 13, three days after Waggett and Callahan interviewed Perez. A second latent-print officer, Rosemary McLaughlin, claims to have verified the match the next day.

LeBlanc did not write a report about it, however, until the 24th — after Cowans had been charged with the shooting. McLaughlin, meanwhile, never put her verification in writing.

There is nothing in voluminous case records to indicate that Cowans’s prints were accessed from the BPD database prior to his arrest, either.

Regardless, detectives on the case then showed photo arrays, including Cowans’s photo, to witnesses. None of them picked him out, with the sole exception of Gallagher’s “most resembles” but “not positive” ID. None of the three members of the Lacy family — the occupants of the house into which the shooter ran — identified his photo. Neither did a young man who had witnessed the suspect being chased, and told police he had seen the man frequently in the area. Neither did even Benjamin Pitre, who had gotten a good look at the suspect from his window overlooking the yard, and who later testified that Cowans was the shooter. When first shown a photo array including Cowans, Pitre picked out one of the other faces as looking most like the shooter.

Cowans also didn’t fit any of the other leads identified in case documents reviewed by the Phoenix. And he had no history of carrying or using a gun.
Nevertheless, Waggett arrested Cowans on an old, outstanding warrant, and handed him over to the lead detectives on the case, who interrogated him about the shooting — telling him, among other things, that they had his fingerprints at the crime scene and on the gun, as well as DNA, hair fiber, and other evidence. (Fabrications of this kind, to affect a confession, were not an unusual technique — indeed, these same detectives, interrogating another suspect in the Gallagher shooting a week earlier, told that suspect that they had surveillance video of him in the area at the time, which was not true.)

The only physical evidence ever produced against Cowans was the now-discredited fingerprint. Police never tested the DNA left at the crime scene, which turned out not to match Cowans’s when, six years later, his lawyers and the New York–based Innocence Project actually did the testing that the BPD never carried out.

It was that DNA testing that led to Cowans’s release in January 2004. The district attorney’s office vowed to retry him, but within hours discovered that the manipulated fingerprint did not match Cowans, either.

Publicly, the department has blamed the erroneous match on an overall lack of training and professionalism in the BPD latent-fingerprint unit. That unit was ultimately shut down, and later restarted with qualified personnel.

But no official has ever acknowledged what an independent investigative team reported to then–Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole just weeks after the exoneration: that the false testimony about the fingerprint was no accident or mistake, but was deliberate.

Fingerprint Chart
OFF THE MARK: The chart Dennis LeBlanc presented in court looked solid, supposedly linking Cowans’s fingerprint (left) with one found near the scene. A review done for the BPD, however, showed it was doctored to fool the jury.

The fingerprint evidence
The shooter made an amazing getaway after wounding Gallagher, eluding the dozens of police who swarmed the area. He had scaled the fence to leave the yard, and seemed to have vanished.

A little more than a half-hour later, though, officers — led by Waggett — knocked at the house abutting where the shooter had jumped the fence. Their previous attempts had gotten no response, but this time the owner, a middle-aged African-American woman named Bonnie Lacy, opened the door and said that the shooter had entered her house, stayed for about 10 minutes with her and her two children, and then left.

Inside the Lacy house, police found a glass mug that Lacy said she used to give the shooter a drink. Two fingerprints were found on it. One of those, LeBlanc and McLaughlin later testified, matched Cowans’s thumbprint.

In fact, it was not even close.

After Cowans’s exoneration, the BPD brought in a team of outside fingerprint specialists to investigate, which quickly determined that LeBlanc was aware that the prints did not match, “and concealed it all the way through trial.”

He did more than conceal it, according to a detailed report submitted to the department in March 2004 by that investigative team, headed by Ron Smith, of Ron Smith & Associates in Meridian, Mississippi. (These findings, first reported by the Phoenix in June 2005, have never been publicly released.)

LeBlanc falsely testified that he found 16 matching “points of identification” — an extremely high number, far higher than necessary under even the most rigorous standards to confirm a match. LeBlanc told the jury that the two prints were “identical.” McLaughlin also testified that the “fingerprint on the glass mug was identical to the inked impression of one Stephan Cowans.”

The Smith team concluded in its report that LeBlanc doctored a large court display of the supposed match, to deceive the jury.

A criminalist from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, asked by the BPD to review the evidence, agreed. He wrote in a memo that the fingerprint enlargements presented by LeBlanc in court “show evidence of manipulation to hide or obscure dissimilarities.”

LeBlanc had a lengthy history of alcohol-related problems, which were well-known within the department and were documented in his personnel files, according to current and former BPD officers. “He’s just off-the-wall drinking,” one says. “Did the drinking make him do it, or was he doing someone a favor? Maybe a little bit of both.”

Both LeBlanc and McLaughlin refused to speak to the AG’s investigators, invoking their fifth-amendment right against self-incrimination. McLaughlin was even offered immunity, according to documents obtained by the Phoenix, and still offered no explanations.

The AG did not attempt to discover whose fingerprints really did match the two on the glass mug, according to two sources who have seen the notes from that investigation.

That’s apparently because the authorities prosecuting the case had already found an explanation for the fingerprints — an explanation, it turns out, based on a set of documents that, unknown to those authorities, were apparently forged.

Those documents first came to light on February 10, 2004, less than three weeks after Cowans’s exoneration. As Ron Smith prepared to take the case materials from Boston to his Mississippi office to further examine them, BPD latent-fingerprint supervisor Robert Foilb informed him of a remarkable discovery, apparently made while Smith was meeting with BPD command staff. Foilb, while organizing the materials for Smith, had discovered that the erroneously identified “Cowans” thumbprint actually matched the thumbprint of Bryant McEwen, a 17-year-old resident of the Lacy house, where the glass was found.

This tidy explanation meant that the fingerprints on the glass were not made by the shooter after all — and therefore, there was no need to pursue the question of who really made them, because they were made by an innocent kid.

The happenstance nature of Foilb’s discovery struck at least one of Smith’s team members as bizarre, that individual told the Phoenix, asking that his name not be used because he was not supposed to comment on the case.

Foilb had “observed similarities,” Smith wrote in his report, between the misidentified thumbprint and the thumbprint on McEwen’s “elimination print card” — an index-card-size form on which detectives take sets of fingerprints from people, like McEwen, who might have innocently touched crime-scene evidence. They are supposed to be checked against crime-scene prints, so that the prints of those not under suspicion can be “eliminated.”

The elimination cards Foilb had come across carried the date June 3, 1997 — four days after the shooting — and were taken from McEwen, his sister Jackie, and their mother, Bonnie Lacy. Those are the three individuals who said they were in the house when the shooter entered. The inked fingerprints are on one side of the cards; the other side has signatures of both the person making the prints and the officer taking the prints, in this case Detective John F. Callahan.

But all of the signatures on those three “June 3” elimination cards are forgeries, including Callahan’s, according to Ronald Rice, a nationally recognized handwriting analyst and president of Checkmate Forensic Services in Plymouth, whom the Phoenix consulted about the cards.

The sudden appearance of these cards, just as the investigation into the wrongful conviction was beginning, was strange enough to draw the attention of some individuals involved with the case. One tells the Phoenix that it was improper for Foilb to have been handling the materials at all, since he had been directly involved in the Cowans case. (Foilb had been LeBlanc and McLaughlin’s supervisor at the time.)

The Smith team, in its report, also commented on the oddity of the sudden appearance of those “June 3” elimination cards — particularly odd, because the trial evidence included another set of elimination cards, taken from the same people, by the same detective, but dated two days earlier: June 1, 1997.
Rice believes that all of the signatures on those June 1, 1997, cards are also forgeries.

That set of cards was created prior to Cowans’s 1998 trial. One of them — the one for Bonnie Lacy — was shown by prosecutors to jurors, as LeBlanc identified the second fingerprint on the glass mug as coming from Lacy’s left ring finger.

The Smith team raised questions about the sudden appearance of that elimination card at the trial, noting that LeBlanc and McLaughlin appeared to be unaware of any elimination cards even as they testified — they claimed to have only discovered the match to Lacy after bringing her in to ink a separate set of prints just as the trial began. The Phoenix, which, again, has been able to access much of the existing original case materials, could find no mention of these elimination cards in any reports or list of evidence, until they were submitted as evidence at the trial.

Nor could the Smith team, which had all of the fingerprint documentation. In its March 2004 report, the team wrote: “Since there is no record of why, when, or by whom an additional set of fingerprints were requested, this needs to be further investigated.”

And neither the Smith team, in its report, nor the Phoenix could find reference to the second set of elimination cards (the “June 3” set), prior to Foilb conveniently discovering them in 2004.

In other words, it appears that when an explanation was needed for one fingerprint in 1998, a match suddenly appeared on a set of never-before-mentioned cards. Then in 2004, when an explanation was needed for the other fingerprint, a match suddenly appeared on another set of never-before-mentioned cards.

The Phoenix contacted handwriting-analyst Rice after noticing that some of the signatures of the same people appeared markedly different on the two sets of elimination prints — the ones dated June 1, 1997, and the ones dated June 3, 1997.

And there are other oddities on the cards. Lacy’s printed name is misspelled “Lacey” on one. On another, the year is written as “98” rather than “97” under both signatures. On yet another, the year is transposed as “79.”

Other elimination cards associated with the case contain anomalies, as well, including one signed with a different name than is printed on it.

Rice examined the signatures from the two sets of the Lacy family’s elimination cards, and compared them with other signatures, provided by the Phoenix, known to have been made by the same people at around the same time, including mortgage documents signed by Bonnie Lacy. Although he cautions that a full analysis would require access to the original documents, Rice concluded that “every signature on these cards is forged.” He adds that at least two different individuals were involved in signing the names.

If Rice is correct, the fingerprints on the cards are also almost certainly not from the Lacys — as the former high-ranking Boston police officer points out, if their hands were available to make the fingerprints, they could have signed their own names.

Yet there is no question, according to the Smith team and other experts who have examined them, that the thumbprint on the Bryant McEwen cards, and the ring-finger print on Lacy’s card dated June 1, 1997, do match the two prints on the glass mug from the crime scene. (The fingerprints on the Lacy card dated June 3, 1997, actually match those on the two McEwen cards, an anomaly that authorities have blamed on mislabeling.)

That would mean, the former BPD officer, former prosecutors, and defense attorneys agree, that whoever doctored the elimination cards must have known whose fingerprints were really on the glass mug, and had access to those individuals to ink the prints on the forged elimination-print cards.

If the forgers knew who the prints did belong to, they knew that they didn’t belong to Cowans.

Lack of answers
Had he lived, and had he not been exonerated, Cowans would not even be halfway through his prison term — he would be almost 25 years away from becoming eligible for parole.

Close to 100 people attended his open-casket memorial in Roxbury. He leaves family who are devastated, children without a father, and friends who talk about his generous and funny personality.

Most of them seem to have left behind much of their bitterness about Cowans’s wrongful conviction. They are much bitterer about his treatment after his exoneration — when, they say, city and state officials turned their back on the man they had destroyed.

It will probably not be possible to know all that happened, or why, until the identity of the real shooter is known. If there were officers trying to protect that person, then his identity might shed light on their motivation for doing so. In any case, it seems that an important element of the case — who really shot Gregory Gallagher — has not been pursued with vigor.

Identifying the real shooter should not be difficult. Police have what they believe to be the shooter’s DNA, taken from the “CK” cap, a sweatshirt left at the Lacys’ home, and water taken from the mug. Police never tested it, but Cowans’s attorney and the Innocence Project did — the finding that all three samples match each other, but not Cowans, is what led to his exoneration.

The fingerprints from the mug, if they are not, in fact, those of Bonnie Lacy and her son, Bryant McEwen, can also be checked against criminal databases. Witnesses, including the Lacys, might be willing to talk after all this time has passed.

There are a number of reasons why authorities need to learn the truth about what happened to Stephan Cowans — though even if he were still alive, no one could restore those years he spent in prison. There is still the un-prosecuted shooting of a police officer. Those on the force who may be guilty of misconduct, or worse, remain unpunished.

But the Cowans case has implications that go beyond individuals. Boston is mired in a rash of shootings, while police are stymied by a frustrating and counterproductive lack of community cooperation. Yet department and city officials don’t seem to appreciate the low regard in which they are held by some people in those victimized neighborhoods — and the role that police themselves have, at times, played in undermining the trustworthiness of the force.

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice