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Dubious convictions
The case of Abdul Raheem is further proof that a commission — with real power — is needed to investigate our flawed justice system

A SUFFOLK COUNTY jury may or may not have gotten it right in 2002 when it convicted Abdul Raheem of murdering his mother, Mary Chatman. But as David S. Bernstein reported in the Phoenix last week, Raheem’s trial was marred by serious errors of omission and commission on the part of police and prosecutors (see "Did He Murder His Mother?", News and Features, April 1). At best, Raheem was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial; at worst, there was a grave miscarriage of justice. Given the ongoing crisis in prosecuting homicides in Suffolk County, the Raheem case is one more indication of how badly the system is broken. Substantial reforms are needed.

The Phoenix found that the investigation into Chatman’s 2000 murder was marred by poorly conducted evidence collection, botched and disregarded witness interviews, and the dubious interpretation of forensics. Among other things, crime-lab reports and photographs revealed DNA, fingerprints, shoe prints, and clothing at the crime scene that did not match or belong to Raheem. Moreover, the officer who headed up the investigation — Sergeant Detective Daniel Coleman —is now, remarkably, the deputy superintendent in charge of the Boston Police Department’s homicide unit.

What’s especially significant about the Raheem case is that it is relatively recent. Law-enforcement officials are fond of claiming that both police and prosecutors have improved their practices since 1997. That was the year that Stephan Cowans was wrongfully convicted in the nonfatal shooting of a police officer, the most recent instance of an innocent person to be found guilty in Suffolk County. Cowans was one of nine men in Suffolk to be released from prison on the basis of new evidence — including DNA — since the year of his conviction. But as the matter of Abdul Raheem demonstrates, questions continue to pile up.

Not that this should come as any great surprise. Just last October, for example, Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole actually had to shut down her poorly trained, woefully inept latent-fingerprint unit. Indeed, it was the fingerprint unit’s bungling that led to Cowans’s wrongful conviction eight years ago. Yet the department was still sending important investigatory work to those analysts, and the district attorney’s office was still using them as expert witnesses, as recently as last summer, even after their incompetence had been documented through an outside review.

The Phoenix has called before for a wrongful-conviction commission, with real power, to take a fresh look at old investigations (see "Lying Liars," Editorial, June 4, 2004). District Attorney Dan Conley has rejected the idea, in large part because, in his view, there have been no such cases to look at for many years. But last year, the Phoenix reported on three additional cases of questionable convictions, all for murders that took place in 1999 and 2000, which relied on highly questionable eyewitness evidence (see "Blind Spots," News and Features, April 23, 2004). The defendants were:

• Keyon Sprinkle, convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison. Sprinkle is expected to file motions for a new trial soon on the basis of two witnesses — one of whom actually testified against him at trial — who are reportedly now prepared to recant their earlier stories.

• Lavell Fulks, who pled guilty to manslaughter in 2002, and was sentenced to eight years despite the lack of any physical evidence.

• Jovan Burts, convicted of second-degree murder in 2003, and sentenced to life in prison. Burts was implicated in a gang killing despite no previous reported involvement in gangs.

Though Conley insists that no wrongful convictions have taken place since he became district attorney, in February 2002 (a month after Raheem’s conviction), there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, given the numerous, well-documented instances of police and prosecutorial malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance that have marred the investigation of homicides and other serious crimes. With Suffolk County still trying murder cases from 2001 and earlier, very few of Conley’s completed cases are available for analysis.

What happened to Abdul Raheem was not all that unusual: he appeared to be the only suspect in the murder of his mother, and the police, in a rush to judgment, overlooked evidence that didn’t fit their theory of what had happened. In fact, Mary Chatman had been facing serious financial difficulties at the time of her death; and there were indications that she was expecting to receive some money on the day she was murdered. Given that there is ample reason to believe Raheem wasn’t even home when the murder took place, there would appear to be more than enough evidence to give his conviction a second look. He’s filed an appeal, but his publicly appointed lawyer, Ed Hayden, is strapped for cash and resources — another systemic problem, and one that lawyers who represent the poor face every day.

A truly open review of old cases — including those that never resulted in a conviction — would not only potentially free the innocent, it might also help punish the guilty. It would also help assure a skeptical public that the problems that led to wrongful convictions really have been fixed, and provide some sense that perhaps the actual criminals will be sought out and brought to justice. That skepticism can only increase with the knowledge that the reform of the homicide unit has been entrusted to Daniel Coleman, the man who led the unprofessional investigation of Mary Chatman’s death. Addressing that skepticism would be a huge benefit to Conley and his prosecutors, whether they realize it or not.

Abdul Raheem, meanwhile, has served three years of his mandatory life sentence in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, in Shirley. At least Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty. "It could be worse," says Raheem. But he — and we — deserve better.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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