Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan agreed Friday to end the pursuit of murder charges against a Lowell man for a fatal 1982 fire he denied setting, ending a legal roller coaster that saw the man freed three years ago after spending 32 years in prison.
Victor Rosario, 60, celebrated with his wife and lawyers Friday after hearing of Ryan’s decision.
“I’m just enjoying the ride, I knew this day would come,” said Rosario, who has spent the last several years enjoying life outside prison while the case hovered over him.
One of his lawyers, Andrea Petersen, added, “Justice has finally been done.”
Rosario had been convicted by a Middlesex Superior Court jury in 1983 of setting a roaring fire at a Lowell home that killed eight people, including five children. His initial appeals were rejected and he served three decades in prison.
The fire was among the worst in Lowell’s history. Within 48 hours, authorities had zeroed in on Rosario, after a witness said he saw him at the scene. Inspectors also determined that burn patterns indicated the fire was intentionally set.
Rosario, then a drug addict and alcoholic, confessed during a lengthy police interrogation that he and two friends threw Molotov cocktails into the building. But he later claimed that he was delusional at the time, suffering from psychosis. Mental health experts testified that he had delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal at the time, raising questions about whether his confession had been coerced.
An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published in the Globe in 2010, found shortcomings in the policy inquiry, including techniques used in witness identification and the fire investigation, raising further questions about the confession.
Rosario appealed again and he was freed from prison in 2014 after Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Supreme Judicial Court upheld Tuttman’s decision in May. The court’s justices said that they were not judging Rosario’s innocence or guilt, but they had determined that Tuttman properly ruled that Rosario’s assertions about investigation techniques, as well as new questions about whether his confession was truthful and voluntary, were enough to cast doubt on whether he received a fair trial.
“This case . . . presents a situation in which a confluence of factors combined to create a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice,” Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote for the court.
In a statement Friday, Ryan said “the passage of time [since the fire] and its impact upon the evidence” led to the decision that “we cannot sustain our high burden of proof at a new trial.”
She said the decision “does not operate as an acquittal of charges; however we have determined that it is in the interests of justice and fairness to proceed in this manner.”
According to a court filing related to the decision, eight of the state’s original trial witnesses have died and several other witnesses’ health and memories have “understandably been impacted by the passage of time.”
Lisa Kavanaugh, one of Rosario’s lawyers, the head of the Innocence Program for the state’s public defender agency, called the decision appropriate.
“We think it’s so overdue, for Victor [and his wife Beverly] to be able to wake up and know this is behind them completely, and know he is completely free,” she said.
They are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday so a judge can recognize Ryan’s decision.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.