Wife's 21-year struggle gives husband new hope
MELROSE -- At first glance, the pictures in the living room of the tidy white colonial look like the photographs that many happily married couples display in their homes. But the snapshots showing Debra and Angel ''Sammy" Toro together over the years are only fleeting glimpses of a life that might have been, all taken during her visits to see her husband in prison.
They started dating in 1979. But since 1981, he has been behind bars, serving sentences that include life imprisonment for the murder of a desk clerk at a Dorchester motel. They were married in a federal prison two years after he was convicted of the murder. All along, Debra Toro has said her husband was framed. She has spent the past 21 years trying to prove it.
Last week, her efforts finally paid off. Suffolk County prosecutors said they would seek to vacate her husband's conviction after discovering a police report that might have cleared him but had never been turned over to defense lawyers. It is too soon to say whether Toro is innocent, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said Tuesday. But he agreed that Toro did not get a fair trial, and said he would not oppose a pending motion for a retrial.
The stunning development offered a sliver of hope to a woman who has sacrificed everything she says she has ever wanted -- children, friendships, a simple family life -- to see the man she loves exonerated of a crime she says he did commit.
Debra Toro knew her husband was an admitted cocaine dealer who had been convicted of firearms violations. He pleaded no contest to a 1979 murder in Florida after he was convicted of the Dorchester slaying. Despite all that, Debra Toro was convinced that her husband was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1981 killing of Kathleen Downey, a 47-year-old English instructor at Worcester State College who was working part-time as a desk clerk at the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge on the Southeast Expressway. As they took Sammy Toro away in handcuffs, she promised to do everything she could to free him.
By all accounts, Debra Toro, 49, has kept her word. ''I never thought to leave him," she said. ''I had no idea it would take so many years. Each year, I thought it would end. But as the years passed, I couldn't walk away."
To try to prove her husband's innocence in the Downey slaying, Toro, a registered nurse, says she has spent about $20,000 on private investigators and at least $75,000 on lawyers. She recently hired her seventh lawyer, Stephen Hrones, who has represented three wrongfully convicted men who have been freed since 2000 in Suffolk County.
She has met with senior police officials to try to persuade them that an officer with a grudge had framed her husband, a theory laid out in the meticulously organized summary of the case she has compiled. Together with a friend, she once put up 2,000 posters in Dorchester, Quincy, Milton, and South Boston and offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with information about Downey's killer. And last year, she drove to rural Pennsylvania repeatedly -- once during a President's Day blizzard -- to locate two witnesses, who, she said, had given false testimony at Sammy Toro's murder trial. She persuaded them to testify again.
This month, the witnesses, a divorced couple, testified in Suffolk Superior Court that they had lied about how Sammy Toro had looked a couple of days after the Dorchester slaying. They said law enforcement officials from Boston and Pennsylvania had pressured them to say that he had been clean-shaven when they saw him. In fact, they said, he had a neatly groomed beard. Sammy Toro's appearance immediately after the crime is important, said Hrones, because witnesses testified that Downey's killer had no beard.
The new testimony raised doubts about Toro's conviction. But it was the discovery last month by police of an investigative report written 12 days after Downey's slaying that ultimately persuaded the district attorney to recommend a new trial. In the 23-year-old report, a homicide detective suggested that another man, who was killed while attempting the robbery of a drugstore in Malden, had fit the description of Downey's killer. For reasons that remain unclear, the report was never turned over to Toro's lawyers or prosecutors until it mysteriously surfaced on July 30.
Debra Toro said she was delighted that prosecutors said they would not object to a new trial. Hrones said it would be difficult for the state to try him again, because many witnesses in Downey's murder are dead.
Relatives of Downey who attended a recent hearing on Angel Toro's request for a new trial did not respond to requests to discuss the case relayed by employees in the district attorney's Victim Witness Assistance Program.
Sammy Toro, 51, said he is amazed and humbled by his wife's devotion.
''I'm a very lucky man," he said during a telephone interview from MCI-Shirley. ''She's very loyal to the last breath."
He said he has tried to push his wife away because he knew how difficult her life had become.
''I deliberately fought with her, trying to force her out of my life," he recalled. ''It didn't work."
Few women stay married to husbands serving life sentences, according to Bruce Western, a Princeton University sociology professor who is writing a book on the effect of prison on families. Prisoners who are married when they are incarcerated usually end up single because of the enormous financial and emotional strains their imprisonment puts on their families. The marriages of young, male inmates are three times more likely to end in divorce or separation than those of free men, said Western.
The marriage of Debra and Sammy Toro has survived, despite the trail of convictions.
''I fell in love with Sammy the man, not the person who had these faults and was doing things he probably shouldn't have," she said. ''He has a record. He does not deserve to be framed and have his life taken away."
She was 24 when she met Sammy Toro, a native of Puerto Rico.
He was an outgoing, dark-haired man who owned an auto body shop with his brother on Dudley Street in Boston in the 1970s, Debra Toro said. He carried lots of cash and drove expensive cars, including a Corvette Stingray with the license plate ''JUSTME."
''I didn't know he [Sammy] had another lifestyle," she said.
She later learned that Toro dealt cocaine and owned guns, and had been repeatedly arrested on drug charges, but that did not turn her away from him. About six months after they began dating, he told her he was going to Florida because he was wanted in Massachusetts on a gun charge. Although Debra had never lived away from home, she joined him.
''I was in love," she said. ''I wanted to be with him. I was thinking, he'd come back and resolve this. I never thought we'd go on the run forever."
While they were in Florida, in 1979, a murder occurred for which Toro was later charged. Debra Toro refuses to discuss the case except to say her husband was charged after his conviction for the Dorchester murder. Facing the death penalty in Florida, he pleaded no contest and received an unusual sentence of three years to life in prison concurrent with his Massachusetts sentence. If he is ever exonerated of Downey's slaying, she said, she hopes the Florida Parole Board recommends his release.
In the early 1980s, the couple moved to Huntingdon, Pa. On Easter Sunday in 1981, she said, they drove to Massachusetts to visit relatives. She said they registered at a Saugus motel around 7:35 p.m., and then she drove alone to her mother's house. Sammy Toro was picked up by his brother to visit his relatives.
About 8:05 p.m., Downey was fatally shot in the chest in a holdup. The assailant took $385.42 cents from the register.
Two days later, Debra Toro said, she and her boyfriend drove back to Pennsylvania, unaware of the killing.
Sammy Toro was arrested about two months later by Pennsylvania State Police and federal agents on firearms charges. While he was in custody in Pennsylvania, a bartender who had been on duty at the Howard Johnson's bar identified Toro as the killer, and he was charged with murder.
Toro and his wife say a now-deceased Boston detective, Arthur Linsky, rigged photo spreads and line-ups shown to witnesses. They say Linsky had repeatedly arrested Toro on drug charges in Boston and loathed him. In 1982, the state's highest court upheld a judge's order dismissing 37 indictments on the grounds that Linsky had lied to grand juries about photographic identifications that never occurred.
In June 1983, Sammy Toro was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Since 1988, Debra Toro said, she has visited him twice a week. Correction officers are usually respectful, she said, although they occasionally pat her down to make sure she has no contraband.
She is allowed to kiss and hug her husband, who typically sits at a table across from her, with no partition. But no conjugal visits have been permitted. She said she always wanted children and a few years ago asked the Department of Correction to let her be artificially inseminated by her husband, but the state, which has allowed the practice, turned down her request.
Justin Latini, a spokesman for the department, declined to comment on Debra Toro's request.
She showed a visitor the inscription on a gold wedding band. Her husband wears a ring with the same inscription.
''ST & DT," it says in script. ''Together forever."