In April 1973, Anthony Mazza was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder in Boston. Last June, at the age of 73, he was released after his conviction was vacated because his trial lawyer was denied key evidence that points to his innocence.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated the case in April, 2020, and charges were finally dismissed in March, 2021—making Mazza the 2,800th American defendant listed in the National Registry of Exonerations.
He spent more than 47 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, longer than any other American exoneree, but his case received so little attention that it took months to track down the details.
It’s hard to imagine spending decades in prison for a crime you did not commit—but Mazza is not alone.
The Registry includes nine other innocent defendants who were released after more than 40 years in prison, 60 who spent at least 30 years in prison, 184 who were imprisoned for more than 25 years each. All told, the 2,800 exonerated defendants we know about spent more than 25,000 years in prison.
For most of the time that Anthony Mazza was in prison, he had no legal assistance. His attorney on appeal did not even ask that his conviction be reversed, only that his sentence be reduced because of his supposed “mental retardation.” That appeal was rejected quickly, in 1974.
For the next 32 years, Mazza pursued justice on his own, and did so with determination and effectiveness that’s hard to square with intellectual disability.
The only witness who directly connected Mazza to the murder was Robert Anderson, an acquaintance in whose apartment the body was found, who drove the victim’s stolen car for days after the killing, who gave items of the victim’s property to others—but who testified that Mazza alone was the killer.
Framing an Innocent Friend
Anderson’s statements about the killing were contradictory and his testimony was inconsistent. Mazza, who had an alibi, always maintained that Anderson himself was the killer. That’s a familiar story. There are at least a dozen other exonerations in the Registry in which a murderer avoided punishment by framing an innocent acquaintance or friend.
Between 1977 and 1995, Anthony Mazza, with no legal help, filed four petitions to reopen his case. They were based in part on affidavits from several men who met Anderson in prison, where he served time for other crimes, and stated under oath that Anderson told them that he had framed Mazza for murder. All four petitions were denied—or worse, ignored.
In 2006, Mazza filed a fifth motion, including a new item: a statement that Anderson’s brother gave to the police in 1972, describing conduct and statements by Anderson that strongly support the claim that Anderson was the killer. Mazza’s lawyer had not seen that statement before his trial. It took Mazza years to get a copy from the Boston police department, once he learned he was entitled to it.
After that, things began to change for Mazza’s case, but at a snail’s pace.
In 2006, a judge appointed a lawyer to represent him. In 2009, that lawyer filed a sixth motion to reconsider the conviction. That motion travelled through the Massachusetts courts, from bottom to top, twice. Finally—after 11 more years, with no change in the evidence—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed Mazza’s conviction because this undisclosed 1972 witness statement undermined the integrity of the jury’s judgment.
This is a common pattern. Withholding evidence of innocence is the most frequent type of government misconduct in trials of innocent defendants. It happened in 61 percent of murder exonerations.
Living Past Exoneration
Anthony Mazza’s exoneration was hardly preordained.
For one thing, prison is very bad for one’s health. By one estimate, a year in prison reduces a person’s life expectancy by about two years. Mazza is fortunate to have lived long enough to be freed; let’s hope he has a chance to enjoy his freedom.
Olin Coones spent 12 years in prison in Kansas for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2020, but died less than four months later from health conditions that were not diagnosed or treated in prison.
In addition, all copies of the hidden witness statement that freed Anthony Mazza might have been lost or destroyed before he obtained one. Or the courts might have continued to ignore or deny his claims despite this new evidence. Or Mazza, working without expert help, might never have learned how to obtain public records.
Or he might simply have given up, as many innocent prisoners do.
The most important lesson from the (as of June) 2,808 exonerations in the National Registry is that the great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are never exonerated.
Why, for example, are defendants who are sentenced to death exonerated about six times more often as defendants—like Mazza—who are convicted of murder but sentenced to life imprisonment?
It’s not because those sentenced to death are six times more likely to be innocent. It’s because defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, governors and journalists work hard to identify innocent defendants who might be executed.
In particular, unlike Mazza, almost all defendants sentenced to death have lawyers as long as they remain on death row. Few innocent defendants who are imprisoned for life have access to lawyers, and most remain and die in prison.
If we can’t stop convicting the innocent we should at least acknowledge that we do make these terrible mistakes, and take substantial claims of innocence seriously from the start.
We must pay attention when significant new evidence of innocence is presented, not ignore it because the case is closed. And the cases of prisoners who might be innocent should go to the front of the line for decision, not the back, so those who are innocent are freed before they reach old age or die.
Don’t confuse what happened to Anthony Mazza with justice. It’s not.
Samuel Gross, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Michigan, is co-founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. Ken Otterbourg, a former journalist, is a researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations.