Kenneth Waters Dies in Tragic Fall
AMBRIDGE - Eighteen years ago, he watched his relatives cry when he was sentenced to life in prison for a murder they were sure he didn't commit. Yesterday, they shed tears again in the very same courthouse as he was set free, his murder conviction vacated by newly tested DNA evidence.
As he emerged from a Middlesex Superior courtroom yesterday into a crush of reporters, Kenneth Waters, 47, hugged exuberant family members, some of whom he'd never met. Soon after, he ate his first corned beef sandwich in nearly two decades, saw his first cellphone, and drank his first Starbucks coffee.
''It's great to be free,'' he said, thanking his sister, Betty Anne Waters, who earned a law degree so she could wage the extraordinary legal battle that led to his release.
''I think it's absolutely amazing that she's dedicated her life to this.''
Waters, who may still face retrial for the 1980 murder of Katharina Brow in Ayer, was released on his own recognizance but ordered by a judge to call a probation officer once a week and stay away from witnesses and Brow's family.
''This is the best day of my life,'' said David O'Connor, one of Waters's eight siblings. ''It's over now.''
But in Ayer, a town Waters's family left years ago, Brow's former neighbors on Rosewood Avenue recalled the killing and Kenneth Waters. Some were shocked yesterday at his release, and a few refused to believe - despite the DNA evidence - that Waters is innocent.
''If he isn't the guy who did it, I don't flippin' know who is,'' said one resident who grew up with Waters but did not want to give his name. ''We'll just see what the justice system does.''
Some recalled Brow as a hard-working, German-born mother and the young Waters as a well-known town rowdy who carried a silent vendetta against her after she turned him in to authorities at age 10 for breaking into her home.
''I think what had gotten him into trouble was that he had broken into the house before,'' said Bill Mauro, 48, who helps run Tiny's Restaurant and grew up with Waters. ''People talked about how brutal a crime it was. But it was something talked about 20 years ago. We haven't really thought about it since.''
Waters's story began in 1980, when he was questioned by police on the day that Brow was found stabbed to death in her trailer home, robbed of cash and jewelry. Waters had worked as a chef at the former Park Street Diner that Brow frequented, and had tangled with police on other occasions.
But he was not charged with the murder until two years later, after the man dating Waters's former girlfriend called police to say that Waters had admitted to the crime.
Throughout the trial, Waters's family never doubted that he'd be found not guilty. They said he had worked a double-shift the night of the slaying, and appeared in court the next morning to answer for another charge.
But everything seemed to go wrong for Waters during his trial. Two former girlfriends - including the mother of his baby daughter - testified that he had admitted to the crime. A third witness told the court that he had sold her a ring she had given to Brow years before, according to court documents. That witness said Waters had hated Brow since he'd been sent to reform school for breaking into her house.
Blood found in Brow's trailer, which was believed to be her killer's, was tested with the technology of the day and determined to be the same blood type as Waters's. He was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison.
Despite the conviction, his family never lost faith in his innocence and his plight changed one sister's life.
Then a young mother of two who had dropped out of high school, Betty Anne Waters went to college, worked her way through law school, and eventually became her brother's attorney.
''There was no alternative,'' he joked yesterday. ''We were out of money for lawyers.''
Betty Anne Waters began writing to the New York-based Innocence Project about her brother's case and eventually learned enough about their work freeing wrongly convicted men with DNA evidence that she hunted down the old blood samples in her brother's case, long-forgotten in a box in the courthouse basement.
With the help of attorney Barry Scheck, and the Innocence Project, in 1999, Betty Anne Waters asked for her brother's DNA to be tested against the old blood sample. The results came back this month: It didn't match.
Betty Anne Waters and Scheck filed a motion for a new trial, and prosecutors have agreed that vacating the conviction ''would be in the interests of justice.''
Prosecutors are now reviewing the evidence to see if they will go forward with a second trial.
''I don't think I've had a better day,'' said Betty Anne Waters yesterday as she walked hand-in-hand with her brother out of the courthouse. When asked how she felt, the 46-year-old part-time lawyer, part-time pub manager replied: ''Wonderful.''
At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Scheck said that prosecutors had agreed to enter the DNA evidence in Waters's case into a national database, a first step in finding the killer. He also said lawyers for the New England Innocence Project already had leads on who that might be.
As for witnesses who testified against Waters, at his trial, Scheck said: ''Obviously that evidence is wrong and the whole point of the reinvestigation is to find out how and why that happened.''
Waters, the third man in the past 12 months to be exonerated by DNA evidence in Massachusetts and among 85 set free in the United States, told reporters at the news conference that ''it's pretty scary'' how easily an innocent man could wind up in prison or facing the death penalty.
''The legal system works if you have the money to make it work,'' he said. ''If you don't have the money to make it work, you're going to prison.''
''I've seen it. I've lived it. I had a five-day trial and I was sitting in Walpole for the rest of my life.''
Ebullient during much of the news conference, Waters grew more serious as he reflected on how the murder had devastated Brow's family.
''I feel absolutely sorry for what happened to them, but I had nothing to do with it,'' he said. ''They have been victimized twice. All this time they thought it was me.''
Waters, the father of an adult daughter he barely knows, said he won't waste time on anger.
Instead, he said his ordeal has inspired him to go back to school like his sister and become a criminal investigator to help solve crimes - starting with the one that he was charged with.
''We will get to the bottom of it, if it takes the rest of our days,''
he said. ''And as you can see, we don't give up easily.''
This story ran on page 01 of the Boston Globe on 3/16/2001.