July 21, 2018

WGBH leads conversation on wrongful imprisonment and false convictions

Zoe Gieger ’20 and Olivia Ong ’20, Co-Arts Editor and Staff Writer

For most Americans, staying out of jail means following the rules, but for some, obedience does not cut it. On November 21, Victor Rosario, a man who spent 32 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, shared his story.

Rosario spoke at a conversation on wrongful imprisonment hosted by WGBH and the New England Center For Investigative Reporting (NECIR). In addition, other speakers during the conversation used Rosario’s wrongful imprisonment to discuss the changes needed to prevent incidents like Rosario’s in the future.

In 1982, Rosario was falsely charged for arson in a fire in Lowell that killed eight people. Two days after the fire, the police brought Rosario to the police station. Because he only spoke Spanish at the time, Rosario did not understand the police’s questions, nor the situation he was in.

As a result, Rosario falsely confessed. Rosario recalled the police telling him, “If you sign this paper, you will go home.” He only realized that the police accused him of arson when he saw himself on the news.

Once in jail, Rosario prepared to spend his life there. He became a minister and learned English from a woman named Beverly, who is now his wife.

“I started to build my life from prison [with] my faith in Jesus Christ, [which was my] foundation,” Rosario said.

At this event, some of the guests not onstage were equally as important in supporting the conversation as the formal guests. Sitting in the front row next to Rosario’s wife, Andrea Peterson, Rosario’s first attorney, helped explain some of the legal details of Rosario’s case.

Onstage was Lisa Kavanaugh, the Director of The Innocence Program at the Committee for Public Counsel Services and Rosario’s former public defender. With the help of lawyers like Peterson and Kavanaugh, Rosario was able to file a motion for his freedom in 2012.

Kavanaugh said that when looking at Rosario’s case, she immediately saw error in some of the evidence used against him, citing “profound flaws with the arson science,” she said.

Since the era of Rosario and many others’ cases, the science used as evidence to convict the accused has improved dramatically. In Rosario’s case, this evidence was a pivotal piece responsible for his freedom.

Also onstage was Dick Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University. He was involved with Rosario and Peterson’s case in 2008 and worked with Jack Nicas, who’s now a staff reporter on the Wall Street Journal, to bring the case to the public’s attention. With the help of the Innocence Project and Lehr’s students, they wrote the Boston Globe article in 2010 that shed new light on Rosario’s case.

Rosario found it easy to talk with Lehr about his personal life and the case.

“When you’re innocent, there’s no fear to hide. There is only truth to tell,” Rosario said.

Originally, the prosecutors theorized that Rosario threw molotov cocktails in the building to start the fire. However, Lehr called this theory “junk science,” since fire experts found no physical evidence of a molotov cocktail at the fire.

When interviewing Harold Waterhouse, the fire expert who investigated the 1982 fire, Lehr noticed that Waterhouse truly believed Rosario committed arson, and he wanted Rosario in jail.

When he realized the discrepancies in the forensic sciences, Lehr accused Waterhouse of framing Rosario.

Lehr recalled that the last thing he asked Waterhouse when he interviewed him was,
“You framed [Rosario], didn’t you?”

Waterhouse then kicked Lehr out of his house, which further affirmed Lehr’s skepticism of the case.

“Journalists have to stay independent and try to advance the story. Journalists have to ask the question,” Lehr said.

Lehr also pointed out the incompetence of Rosario’s initial public defender, who had a drinking problem. This defender was later even accused of killing two people in a vehicular homicide while drunk. Lehr questioned why the system did not address this defender’s incompetence.

Lehr described more of the system’s flaws, including how the police hypnotized eyewitnesses for the most “accurate” interviews. If police dealt with other 1980s cases incorrectly, according to Lehr, there would have been no doubt that police also dealt with Rosario’s case incorrectly.

When Lehr and Nicas’ story first ran in the Boston Globe, Rosario noticed how people started seeing him differently. He felt amazed by how the article introduced the possibility that the system made a mistake. For the first time, the news portrayed him in a different tone.

When Rosario saw a picture of his face in the the paper, he said, “I saw [in] my face sadness… I thought, ‘somebody’s doing something right now.’”

However, ever since Rosario’s release in 2014, the state has not provided him with a single dollar. The Innocence Project believes that, when released, wrongfully convicted prisoners need transitional support and resources to get back on their feet. People released from prison have complained about waiting a long time before being compensated, if at all.

Rosario believes that the state has a responsibility to at least try to make amends for the lost years of wrongfully convicted prisoners. For example, another audience member was Fred Clay, who was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison as a 16 -year old and left as a 53-year old with no money or family. He only received money from a GoFundMe page for him.
Rosario acknowledges that no money can repay the years lost, but at least released men and women should not wind up with nothing.

“There is not money in the world that can pay 32-38 years in prison,” Rosario said.

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