sues city over wrongful rape conviction
By Jennifer Kavanaugh
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
MARLBOROUGH, MA -- A man who served 10 years for a rape he didn't commit is suing the city, claiming police lied and cajoled the victim into identifying him as her attacker.
Eric Sarsfield, now nearly 40, was cleared of the charge in 2000 after DNA testing proved he was innocent.
According to the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, officers investigating the Aug. 24, 1986, rape on Pleasant Street were so overzealous they bent the rules to find a suspect.
Barry Scheck, a member of O.J. Simpson's defense team and a DNA legal expert, and Brookline lawyer George Garfinkle filed the $10 million lawsuit Feb. 18.
"This is a very decent guy, very honorable," Scheck said of Sarsfield, who lives in Bolton. "The system didn't play fair with him. Society didn't play fair with him. And he ought to be compensated for that."
Scheck is co-founder of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to free people it believes are wrongfully imprisoned.
Besides the city, named in the suit are police Lt. Jody Merlini, then a sergeant, and officers Dennis Clark, Robert Jusseaume and Albert Pitard, who are all retired from the force.
City Solicitor James Golden, Jusseaume and Merlini said yesterday that they couldn't discuss the case. Pitard and Clark couldn't be reached for comment. Police Chief Mark Leonard also declined comment. An officer at the time, Leonard was not part of the case.
The suit claims the police victimized both Sarsfield and the woman, by coercing her into identifying Sarsfield and ultimately denying her justice. No one else has been prosecuted for the crime.
"This case is about two decent, honorable, and trusting citizens...who were manipulated, cheated, and betrayed by law enforcement officers more interested in closing a case and getting a conviction than in playing by the rules and in serving justice," the suit reads.
Sarsfield's lawyers claim, among other things, that police:
- Falsely attributed a self-incriminating statement to him.
- Ignored the fact that Sarsfield lacked the attacker's tattoo.
- Repeatedly singled out Sarsfield to the woman during a lineup and photo identification.
The woman in the case was 30 years old and a newcomer to town the summer she was raped. She had moved from Iowa to start a job with the United Way.
The woman was sweeping her patio when a drunken man dragged her into the living room and raped her.
When police arrived, they found the man's jacket, radio with earphones and a burrito in a jacket pocket. The woman said her attacker had a tattoo of a blue cross.
The next day, Officer Dennis Clark showed her a surveillance videotape from a convenience store, which showed a man buying a burrito, according to the suit. Based on the man's jacket and body language, the woman apparently identified him as her attacker.
About a month later, Jusseaume followed Sarsfield home and told him he resembled the man who raped the Pleasant Street woman. Over the next few months, the police interrogated Sarsfield. He said he didn't rape the woman.
On one of those occasions, Jusseaume handed Sarsfield a bag containing the jacket and the headphones, and asked him to remove the items, according to the suit. Sarsfield said he refused, fearing his fingerprints would end up on the items and be used against him.
In the weeks after the rape, the police showed the woman hundreds of photos, but she couldn't point to her attacker, the suit says. One night, police went to the woman's house with 10 new photos, and allegedly pointed to Sarsfield's picture repeatedly and asked, "What about this one?"
At the police station, the suit alleges, police showed the woman a lineup -- but Sarsfield was the only one in the lineup.
The woman complained about the darkly lit room and said she wasn't sure, but after more prompting she said she was 95 percent sure he was the rapist, according to the suit.
A few days later, Merlini allegedly told her that Sarsfield's estranged wife identified him from the convenience store video and said, "What did he do this time?"
In January 1987, police arrested Sarsfield.
The trial proved to be complicated. Although the hospital had assembled a bag containing physical evidence of the attacker, prosecutors said the matter had deteriorated and couldn't be tested.
In addition, Sarsfield didn't have a tattoo, while the attacker did.
"Jusseaume was so intent on winning a conviction against Sarsfield, regardless of his innocence, that Jusseaume fabricated a police report that Mr. Sarsfield had volunteered to him...that he used to draw fake tattoos on his arm," the suit says.
Sarsfield denies ever having said that, and the suit alleges that on the Friday before the trial, "Jusseaume told the prosecutor that he had just `found' his three-page handwritten report of the alleged conversation."
In the closing arguments, Sarsfield's lawyer, Joseph Annunziata, criticized the "fuzzy" videotape, which the FBI tried to enhance but couldn't, according to a news report. He also questioned the motives of the estranged wife for identifying the figure as Sarsfield.
"He's not on trial for eating a burrito," Annunziata said.
According to news coverage of the trial, the jury was deadlocked for days before reaching the guilty verdict.
Sarsfield was convicted of rape, assault and battery, and was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison. He exhausted his appeals two years later, and started his prison sentence at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole.
At hearings in 1996, 1997 and 1998, the parole board denied Sarsfield release because he wouldn't admit to the crime, according to the suit. The board released him in 1999.
A year later, Sarsfield's lawyer, Garfinkle, won the right to a DNA test. Two separate tests conclusively excluded Sarsfield as the rapist. In summer 2000, the court threw out the conviction, and the Middlesex County district attorney's office decided not to retry him.
Even after that, it took Garfinkle two years to get Sarsfield off the sex offender registry list, according to the suit. Sarsfield recently remarried and works as a carpenter, Garfinkle said. Sarsfield couldn't be reached for comment.
"He's trying to pick up after 10 years," Garfinkle said. "It's tough, but he's making a valiant effort."