Verdict in police beating is voided
Prosecutors could refile perjury case
A federal judge has overturned the 1998 perjury conviction of former Boston police officer Kenneth M. Conley, who was accused of lying about witnessing the beating of an undercover officer who was mistaken for a shooting suspect during a chaotic pursuit in Mattapan.
The ruling Wednesday by Chief Judge William G. Young of US District Court, made public yesterday, gives US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan's office 60 days to refile the charges against Conley, after which the case will be dismissed and cannot be refiled.
Young ruled that prosecutors withheld a key interview from defense lawyers that could have impeached the credibility of a key government witness. Unless prosecutors decide to refile the case, Young's ruling would end a tangled legal saga that made its way to the US Supreme Court.
"I'm numb, absolutely numb," Conley said in a telephone interview from his home last night. "It's been almost eight years now, this is unbelievable."
His case had become a cause celebre for fellow officers, family, and friends in South Boston, with bumper stickers demanding "Justice for Kenny Conley" appearing on cars all over Greater Boston.
"It's a great feeling," Conley added. "I always knew that I was in the right, and I was hopeful that everything would work out."
Conley was fired from the department in May 2000 and is now a 35-year-old union carpenter living in Norwood.
On Jan. 25, 1995, he was a 27-year-old patrolman from South Boston responding to a 2 a.m. radio call for a possible shooting and a foot chase on a dead-end street in Mattapan, where the incident occurred.
Conley said he had "tunnel vision" during his foot pursuit of one of the shooting suspects and did not see undercover officer Michael Cox being beaten by other Boston police officers. After he told that story to a federal grand jury investigating the Cox beating, federal prosecutors charged Conley with perjury.
One Conley supporter, US Representative William D. Delahunt of Quincy, helped him get the free legal assistance of prominent Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett, whose work during the last two years kept Conley out of prison and eventually got the case overturned.
"Obviously I'm pleased," Delahunt said last night. "I have been confident of Ken Conley's innocence for a long time.
"It would appear that the system works, and I would hope that the US attorney's office would review this decision and make a decision to drop the case," he said. "This has dragged on for years and has had a negative impact on the life of a young man who is more of a hero than people give him credit for."
Bennett said, "Conley is finally getting the justice that has so far been denied him. "It was a courageous but very fair decision by the judge."
Bennett said that Young found that Assistant US Attorney Theodore S. Merritt, who prosecuted the case, should have given defense lawyers the text of an interview with Officer Richard Walker, whose testimony at trial was used to establish that Conley was in a position to see Cox being beaten.
According to court documents, Walker expressed doubts about his memories of that night and said he would remember more if he "were hypnotized."
"It wasn't just something that impeached [Walker's] credibility; it cast doubt on his ability to recollect what happened that night," Bennett said. "This was an outrageous withholding of a document."
Samantha Martin, a spokeswoman for the US attorney's office, said Merritt was unavailable for comment. She said prosecutors were still analyzing Young's decision to decide whether to refile the charges. Young said he would dismiss the charges with prejudice, meaning that they can never be refiled.
A Boston police spokesman declined comment last night, saying that the department hadn't had a chance to analyze Young's decision. Cox could not be reached for comment last night.
Although Bennett said he believed his client had an excellent chance to become a police officer again, Conley said he didn't know yet whether he would seek reinstatement if prosecutors decide to drop the case.
"That's something I would have to think about," he said.
Conley said that, as news of Young's order spread yesterday afternoon, supporters and well-wishers began calling and stopping by his home to congratulate him.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing for the last hour and a half," he said.
Conley was sentenced to 34 months in prison after his 1988 conviction, but never served any time. The original judge in his criminal case, US District Court Judge Robert E. Keeton, allowed him to remain free pending appeal.
While he was the only officer charged criminally in the case, Conley was never accused of taking part in Cox's beating, only with lying about what he saw.
Three other officers were found liable for beating Cox in a civil trial. Conley was found not liable.
Conley's first appeal of the case went to the Supreme Court, where it was rejected. But in 2000, Keeton overturned the verdict based on "newly discovered evidence" the judge said could help prove Conley's innocence at trial.Prosecutors appealed the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case to Young last year.
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