Saturday, May 5, 2012

Our Verdict in the Case of Massachusetts v. Cowans

In my last post, I summarized the case of Massachusetts v. Cowans. I told the readers how I would have voted had I been a jury, offered a poll for readers to indicate how they would have voted, and asked those who would vote Not Guilty to explain why via the comments.

The first six votes in were Guilty. Anonymous then cast a Not Guilty verdict and provided an explanation why. This launched some brief deliberations in the comment. Anonymous pointed out that there was no DNA evidence, that only the police officer had identified his assailant and did so only after two weeks, that others who should have been able to identify the defendant did not, and that the fingerprint evidence consisted of but one print on one glass.

I responded by pointing out that DNA was not generally available at the time of the case in question, that the police officer was a trained observer who testified to his absolute confidence in his eyewitness identification. I conceded that I had mentioned neither of these points in my post, so I grudgingly accepted responsibly for that. I asked Anonymous how far the State must go to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case at hand, the State had provided fingerprint evidence supported by the eyewitness testimony of a trained observer who had confronted the defendant face-to-face.

In light of the new evidence and my brilliant counter argument, Anonymous changed his vote to Guilty.

Anonymous 2 then chimed in with a Guilty vote and a twist. Anon 2 voted Guilty on all counts other than the armed robbery. Anon 2 pointed out that the only weapon in question was the police officer's weapon, which the defendant allegedly took during a struggle. He couldn't have had the gun at the time he robbed the policeman of the gun, hence no armed robbery. Not Guilty on the armed robbery.

Brilliant. I changed my vote on the armed robbery count to Not Guilty.

Via his insight, Anon 2 reminded us all that the State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for each count charged. The rest of us were simply too swept up in the overwhelming evidence of guilt on the primary charge to carefully consider the secondary charges.

Having learned my lesson, I raised the issue about the home invasion charge. The defendant had allegedly entered a private residence only after the young boy in the house had opened the door. The evidence was that the defendant pointed the gun towards the ceiling, never pointed it at anyone in the house, never threatened anyone in the house, and put the gun down when asked to do so by the mother. In the absence of a counter argument, I'll change my vote on the home invasion charge to Not Guilty.

After the first twelve votes, we had the requisite twelve Guilty votes. We had zero Not Guilty votes, given that Anon 1 had changed his vote via the comments. It's not clear where we ended up on the secondary charges of armed robbery and home invasion. I'll therefore declare a hung jury on those charges. As a juror, I am not allowed to make such a declaration. As a blogger, however, I am so empowered.

As skeptical jurors, we were slightly less harsh on the defendant than was the actual jury. The actual jurors, our surrogates, voted Guilty on all counts. Cowans was sentenced to 45 years.

We can rest easily now that we have performed our civic duty so carefully and so well. We have removed a dangerous felon from our streets. Our community is now a bit safer, at least until scumbag Cowans gets out on parole.

*** THE END ***

But wait!

That situation changed in 2004 when Stephan Cowans became the first – and thus far the only – person to be exonerated by DNA evidence for a wrongful conviction in which fingerprint evidence was a contributing factor. Cowans’s wrongful conviction in Boston in 1997 for the attempted murder of a police officer was based almost solely on eyewitness identification and latent print evidence. The Cowans case not only provided dramatic additional support for the already established proposition that wrongful conviction by fingerprint was possible, it also demonstrated why the exposure of such cases, when they do occur, is exceedingly unlikely. 
Stephan Cowans was convicted of attempted homicide for the non-fatal shooting of a police officer in 1997. It is not entirely clear how Cowans emerged as a suspect; it appears that his name was suggested during the police canvass as someone who might have sold a hat to the true perpetrator. But the tenuousness of the connection between Cowans and the crime changed dramatically when Cowans was implicated by a latent fingerprint. The print was recovered from a home that the perpetrator had invaded during flight. The perpetrator held a mother and a daughter hostage for around ten minutes and drank a glass of water before fleeing the home. A latent print was recovered from the water glass. 
Two Boston Police Department (“BPD”) latent print examiners, Dennis LeBlanc and Rosemary McLaughlin, testified that Stephan Cowans was the source of the latent print on the water glass. The victim, Officer Gary Gallagher, and an eyewitness to the shooting identified Cowans. The hostages, who spent far more time in the perpetrator’s company, failed to identify him. Two investigators hired by defense counsel reportedly also confirmed the latent print attribution. Cowans was convicted and sentenced to forty-five years in prison, which was later reduced to thirty years. 
Cowans worked biohazard duty in prison in order to save money for post-conviction DNA testing. Biological evidence had been recovered from the water glass, a hat left at the scene of the shooting, and a sweatshirt left at the invaded home. It is a testament to the evidentiary strength of latent print identification that the state opposed post-conviction DNA testing, partly because it failed to see how such evidence, even if found to be exclusionary, would prove Cowans’s innocence given the fingerprint evidence. 
After Cowans had served six years in prison, the New England Innocence Project (“NEIP”) persuaded the state to allow post-conviction DNA testing. The DNA analysis found that the same contributor had left biological evidence on all three items – the glass, the hat, and the sweatshirt – and that Cowans was not that contributor. The state re-examined the latent print evidence, concluded that Cowans was not the source of the latent print, joined NEIP’s motion for his immediate release, and apologized to Cowans. 
It is still not entirely clear what caused the latent print misattribution in the Cowans case. It was stated that Cowans’s name appeared on a ten-print card containing prints taken from the hostages (so-called “elimination prints”). It was suggested that this meant that the Cowans misattribution was not a “true” latent print error, but rather a mere “clerical error” involving the mislabeling of a card. But it has still not been adequately explained how an elimination ten-print card containing a victim’s fingerprints could have been labeled with the name of a suspect who was not developed as a suspect until several days after the crime, except through outright deliberate fabrication of evidence. 
Further investigation uncovered allegations that the Boston Police Department’s Latent Print Unit (“LPU”) was functioning as a “dumping ground” or “punishment duty” for troubled police officers. Much of the blame focused on Dennis LeBlanc, who, it was claimed, had “discovered his mistake” before trial “and concealed it all the way through trial.” The District Attorney even unsuccessfully sought a grand jury indictment against LeBlanc, apparently the only time such a sanction has been sought against a latent print examiner implicated in a misattribution. LeBlanc, for his part, blamed “the system,” telling reporters, “The system failed me. ... And the system failed Cowans.”
Holy Life-Changing Turn of Events, Batman!

We convicted an innocent man.

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