Man freed in 1997 shooting of officer
Judge gives ruling after fingerprint revelation
By Jonathan Saltzman and Mac Daniel, Globe Staff, 1/24/2004
A judge freed a Roxbury man from prison yesterday after Suffolk County prosecutors acknowledged that the fingerprint used to convict him of shooting a Boston police officer seven years ago was not his.
The stunning reversal occurred two days after prosecutors vowed to retry Stephan Cowans for shooting Officer Gregory Gallagher, even though newly analyzed DNA evidence showed that Cowans was not the shooter. Suffolk Assistant District Attorney David E. Meier said on Wednesday that his office would retry Cowans, relying on "compelling" evidence, including a fingerprint on a glass the shooter used.
But yesterday, Meier reversed himself, telling Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat that the fingerprint evidence used at trial did not come from Cowans. "I can conclusively and unequivocally state, your honor, that that purported match was a mistake," Meier said, based on forensic testing conducted this week.
Cowans, who had served 6 1/2 years for a shooting he insisted he did not commit, walked out of Suffolk Superior Court a free man. He became the seventh person to challenge a Suffolk County conviction successfully since 1997.
Cowans, who was convicted in 1998 of shooting and wounding Gallagher in a Roxbury backyard, said he never lost hope during his years in prison, because he knew he was innocent and was confident that somehow the truth would surface.
"I never thought I would never get out," the 33-year-old Roxbury man said calmly after his release, flanked by delighted relatives and lawyers. "I was one who never gave up on myself."
Boston police did the original analysis of the fingerprint lifted from a glass of water from wich the shooter drank after he forced his way into a nearby house. But after Cowans's legal team presented new DNA evidence this week showing that he was not the person who drank from the glass or wore the hat and sweat shirt discarded at the scene, the district attorney's office had Boston and State Police specialists reanalyze the fingerprint.
DNA analysis of evidence found at crime scenes was not routinely done at the time of Cowans's trial.
Meier was told yesterday morning that the new fingerprint analysis showed that the thumbprint did not belong to Cowans, and the prosecutor contacted Cowans's lawyers.
Without comment, the judge threw out the conviction and freed Cowans. Meier said the district attorney's office has no intention of retrying Cowans "given the state of the evidence."
In a late-afternoon news conference at Boston police headquarters, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and Acting Police Commissioner James M. Hussey expressed regret and embarrassment over the mistake that led to the imprisonment of an innocent man.
"Seven years ago, the criminal justice system failed Stephan Cowans," Conley said. "It took seven years for that mistake to be corrected, seven years of Stephan Cowans's life that he can't get back. On behalf of the criminal justice system, we extend a sincere apology to Mr. Cowans."
Conley said there will be a thorough review of "the facts and circumstances of this case, the conviction, and the error. We cannot accept a high percentage of success as sufficient; we cannot accept being right just most of the time."
The Boston Police Department has asked the International Association for Identification, the world's largest and oldest forensic group, and the FBI to make recommendations about forming an outside investigative team to review Boston police procedures for analyzing fingerprints, Hussey said.
Nonetheless, Conley said, he believes the misidentification stemmed from "an honest mistake, an error by the technician."
"We also have not forgotten that a police officer was shot and nearly killed in the line of duty nearly seven years ago in a backyard . . . We will continue to investigate the facts and circumstances of that shooting," Conley said.
Hussey said police officials have spoken to Gallagher, now a detective, who was among the witnesses who identified Cowans as his assailant. "He's OK, and he still feels strongly that he's made the right identification," Hussey said.
Cowans was convicted in 1998 of shooting Gallagher in the buttocks with the officer's 9mm Glock service pistol. Gallagher had pursued a man acting suspiciously near Rafael Hernandez School on School Street on May 30, 1997. He scuffled with the man and lost his gun.
On Wednesday, at the request of Meier, Lauriat had agreed to suspend Cowans's sentence of 30 to 45 years in state prison, pending a defense motion for a new trial based on a DNA analysis gathered by lawyers for the New England Innocence Project. Cowans had remained in jail while his family tried to raise the $7,500 bail.
The New England Innocence Project, which had taken Cowans's case, sent evidence from his trial to a forensic DNA testing company, Orchid Cellmark in Germantown, Md. Sweat from the brim of a baseball cap lost by Gallagher's assailant in the yard was tested, as well as a sweat shirt the gunman removed in a house he forced his way into on School Street. The lab also tested saliva from the rim of a glass mug in the house used by the assailant. The DNA evidence was all from the same individual, but it didn't match Cowans's, the analysis found.
At the hearing Wednesday, Meier said that if the court threw out the conviction, prosecutors would retry the case, because evidence presented at trial, including the fingerprint on the mug, was still "extremely compelling."
The following day, members of the Boston Police Department flew to Germantown to retrieve the mug. Boston and State Police analysts compared the print found on the mug with a known print from Cowans, and they did not match.
Cowans, who changed into a brown suit after he was released but still wore the striped white sneakers he had on in court, said there aren't "any words in the dictionary to explain what it was like" to spend 6 1/2 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
But he said he used the time productively, earning his graduate equivalency diploma and training to become a barber. The worst thing was not being able to attend his mother's funeral on Sept. 9, he said.
"My mother was one of my strongest supporters," he said. "You never think you wouldn't be there to attend something so important as your mother's funeral."
On his first night of freedom, Cowans planned to savor his favorite meal, which his grandmother cooked and put in the freezer when she thought he might be released Wednesday. The menu, she said, was a secret.