Police Professionalism in Boston


The Boston Phoenix investigates the sad case of Stephan Cowans, wrongfully imprisoned for killing a Boston police officer. Cowans was exonerated in 2003, then murdered in 2004 by someone with designs on his $3.2 million settlement. The paper digs into Cowans' conviction, and finds evidence that police knew Cowans was innocent, yet forged ahead with his prosecution anyway. You might recognize this language:

What disturbs some political critics, as well as some defense attorneys, is that an unusually high number of botched police cases have not resulted in significant internal reform or any disciplinary action. This despite police conduct that a judge called "a fraud upon the court," in Christopher Harding's conviction, and that another judge, presiding over Donnell Johnson's appeal, said "suggests either serious misconduct or negligence."

In other cases of wrongful conviction, there was no effort made to answer tough questions about what went wrong. A feeble attempt was made in the wake of Cowans's exoneration. But its inadequacy only underscores the rottenness of the system. And of all these cases, it is the Cowans conviction that raises the biggest questions about local law-enforcement officials' ability to police themselves.


After examining 15 wrongful convictions — all but four in Boston — Reilly and the state's DAs concluded that they "did not suggest a present systems failure," and laid most of the blame vaguely on "erroneous eyewitness identifications."

In the only specific reference to Cowans, the report said that "the Commonwealth's fingerprint evidence was flawed."

Such comments fail to acknowledge what the BPD itself concluded more than two years earlier — that the fingerprint evidence was not flawed, but deliberately manipulated and lied about in court.

Defense attorneys who have fought wrongful-conviction cases say that without a more honest and thorough explanation, the public and law-enforcement officials alike cannot know whether a "present systems failure" exists.

It's a damning article. But if history is any indication, it's unlikely to change much.