Author(s):    John Ellement, and Dick Lehr, Globe Staff
April 4, 2003 
LOWELL - Dennis Maher acted like a first-time visitor yesterday as he walked around his parents' modest home here, gawking at the large-screen television, murmuring his approval at his father's collection of miniature cars and his mother's display of porcelain animals.

There's a reason the 42-year-old Maher showed astonishment for what many consider routine: He became a free man yesterday after spending 19 years in prison for two rapes and an attempted rape that he didn't commit. Faced with new DNA evidence that exonerated Maher, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Charles M. Grabau wiped out the convictions of the former Army sergeant and sent him home.

And so, for the first time since 1984, Maher was able to choose what to eat, where to go, and what to wear. He chose a T-shirt with the phrase "So Far So Good" given to him by his mother, Lucy, while shopping for new sneakers at a New Hampshire mall.

"I'm overwhelmed," Maher told reporters earlier in the day outside the Middlesex Superior courtroom in Cambridge where his attorney from the New England Innocence Project, Aliza B. Kaplan, fought back tears as Maher was officially cleared of the crimes.

Maher was assigned to Fort Devens in Ayer in 1983, when he became a suspect in a 1983 Lowell rape because he was wearing clothes similar to those worn by the rapist. Ultimately, that victim and two others identified Maher as their attacker, and he was convicted on eyewitness testimony.

DNA testing completed last fall cleared Maher. Maher is the seventh Massachusetts inmate and the 126th nationwide to be cleared by DNA testing, according to Kaplan. She urged the Legislature to adopt a proposal to compensate those wrongly convicted.

Kaplan and Karin Burns, from the Innocence Project, said they had difficulty locating the physical evidence used against Maher. But Whitney J. Brown, first assistant clerk at Middlesex Superior Court, said the evidence was properly stored in the courthouse vault.

At a press conference, Maher spoke briefly, addressing the women whose testimony helped imprison him. "To the victims, I would like to say: What happened to you really happened. I hold no grudge against you. I hope that you got your lives back together."

Maher said he has no sharply drawn plans for his own future. He does, however, want his service record amended to reflect an honorable discharge, rather than an "other than honorable" one. He said he wants to marry and have children and to live quietly. For a while, he said he'll stay with his parents, who never doubted his innocence.

His father, Donat, joked that Maher will have a curfew as long as his son lives with him.

Maher said he blames his attorney, who has since died, and Lowell police for his convictions. He does not blame Boston criminal defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr., the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted him.

Carney, who Kaplan said has given "unprecedented" support to Maher's bid for freedom, met privately yesterday with Kaplan.

"I told him how very, very sorry I was for my role in this injustice," Carney said later. "And I asked him to forgive me."

Maher said he accepted Carney's apology.

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, who inherited the case, also apologized to Maher on behalf of the criminal justice system. Lowell police referred questions to Coakley.

"Obviously, we have profound regrets about this," she said. "There is not much you can say to someone who has unfortunately been at the wrong end of an imperfect system."

Maher, meanwhile, said no amount of money will ever repay him for what he has lost.

"I lost 19 years," he said. "I should be retired from the military, getting a pension and starting a second career. I should be married with children. You can't make up for that."

Recent Cases
Eyewitness ID

Truth in Justice