By Lucy Quinlivan, Staff Writer

June 12, 1999

The U.S. attorney in Milwaukee asked a federal judge this week to release two men wrongly convicted of bank robberies a Minnesota man has confessed he committed.

Frank Bolduc and Frank Larkin, both of Boston, were convicted in 1991 of two Wisconsin robberies identified as the handiwork of the ``Trench Coat Robbers,'' a team the FBI said held up 28 banks over a period of 14 years.

Each was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison based on the testimony of the bank employees who were held up. No physical evidence tied them to the scenes. It's a case that, for their defense lawyers, raises doubts about the value placed on eyewitness testimony.

The two men tried repeatedly and without success to prove their innocence and have their convictions overturned. They doggedly pursued documents from the government's continuing investigation of the string of robberies under Freedom of Information Act requests.

Larkin is in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., and Bolduc is in a state prison in Massachusetts, where he is serving time for violating his parole on a second-degree murder conviction. He had been on his way to Milwaukee for a hearing on his petition, but that was canceled when the government filed papers supporting his request Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Curran has the requests under advisement and is expected to rule on Bolduc and Larkin's petitions soon.

William Kirkpatrick of Hovland, Minn., gave the two men their break in March when he pleaded guilty to heists attributed to the Trench Coat team and made a deal with the government: In exchange for a sentence of 14 to 17 1/2 years, he would give investigators details of the holdups.

His partner, Ray Lewis Bowman, was convicted in 1998 in Seattle of the last job they pulled, a $4.4 million robbery of a Seafirst Bank in Lakewood, Wash. In all, the duo are accused of robbing the banks of about $7.8 million.

``Kirkpatrick's ready, matter-of-fact and unguarded command of detail of the physical surroundings and layout of the banks he had cased and robbed in Wisconsin, as well as other salient details of the events, led the interviewers to believe that his claim of responsibility for petitioners' crimes of conviction was credible,'' wrote Stephen Ingraham, an assistant U.S. attorney, in the government's response to petitions by Larkin and Bolduc.

``The government's obligation to seek the truth ... does not stop upon conviction,'' Ingraham wrote. ``The government believes this evidence exonerates the petitioners.''

``We are very grateful Mr. Kirkpatrick took responsibility for what he did,'' said Dianne Erickson, a Wisconsin lawyer representing Larkin. ``He could have maintained his right to silence forever, and all we had were circumstantial things to go by.''

Milwaukee lawyer Thomas Hayes was appointed to represent Bolduc after Bolduc learned that Bowman had been convicted and Kirkpatrick faced charges. Hayes credited government investigators in a case that has restored his faith in the system in some ways, and raised questions about it in others.

``This case certainly is an indictment against the American judicial system,'' Hayes said of the ease with which the wrong men were sent to prison. ``Even though it's the best in the world, it's not without its own imperfections. Asking people under the stress of being robbed at gunpoint to identify someone they saw for less than a minute is very questionable.'' Still, Hayes is pleased with efforts to exonerate Bolduc and Larkin.

``But then you have a lot of very good people in very important places trying to cure the imperfections,'' he said, referring to Milwaukee prosecutors who now support the requests of Bolduc and Larkin. ``The system of justice that we have does not require proof beyond all doubt,'' Thomas Schneider, the Wisconsin U.S. attorney, said Friday. ``It requires proof beyond reasonable doubt. No matter what system we devise, there is always the possibility of error.''

Schneider said he finds it amazing that so few cases like that of Bolduc and Larkin exist.

``What else are you going to rely on, in many cases, if we can't rely on eyewitness testimony?,'' he said. ``And while it's nice to have other, corroborating physical evidence, the fact is, in a huge number of cases, that's all there is.''

Schneider also noted that several bank employees chose one or both of the men from photographic or in-person line-ups. ``And we have no reason to believe those witnesses were acting in anything but good faith,'' he said.  

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