In the last two decades, at least 22 innocent Massachusetts men, most of them black and most investigated by Boston police, have served serious prison time on wrongful convictions for rape and murder, reports an investigation by the Boston Herald and Fox 25 TV news. Since 1997 alone, nine innocent black men convicted in Suffolk County have been freed after serving between four and 30 years behind bars. Across the country, 143 innocent suspects have been freed since 1990; experts say the number of Suffolk County’s wrongful convictions is second only to Chicago, which has sent the largest number of innocent men to jail. “Unfortunately, Massachusetts in general has a big problem with wrongful convictions,” said Aliza B. Kaplan, an Innocence Project attorney.
The findings come as Gov. Mitt Romney has renewed his call for the death penalty, saying newly proposed guidelines will avoid wrongful convictions.
Thirteen of those 17 Boston cases were investigated by Boston Police homicide and rape detectives and prosecuted by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The homicide unit has come under heavy criticism for conducting overly aggressive interrogations while focusing their investigations too narrowly. “When police get a suspect, they ignore any suggestion that someone else did it,” said Stephen Hrones, who represented wrongfully convicted Donnell Johnson. Johnson, now 26, served five years in prison for the 1994 murder of a 9-year-old boy.
A review of wrongful convictions found:
* A serious error by a Boston police fingerprint technician has triggered a criminal investigation into how a thumbprint police said was one suspect’s turned out to belong to a different man.
* The unreliability of eyewitness identification has also factored heavily into the Suffolk County prosecutions. “here are serious problems with eyewitness identification – more than I recognized,” said Leslie O’Brien, a defense attorney who, as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, prosecuted four of the eight overturned cases.
* Families of those wrongly convicted blame Boston police, and some accuse them of deliberately trying to frame their relatives.