The jury in the 1995 murder trial first raised the question: Did it matter that the pager and cash a Boston detective claimed to have seized as evidence did not match those in crime scene photographs?
The judge dismissed the concern and cleared the way for a fast verdict. The Suffolk County jury then convicted James Lucien, a 22-year old Black man, of first-degree murder and sent him to prison for life.
Now after 26 years, that question about the pager and cash may unravel the entire case. At issue is the trustworthiness of the detective, John K. Brazil, who was a member of a corrupt unit of Boston officers who falsified evidence and stole money from drug dealers in similar cases.
A never-before-reported review of Lucien’s decades-old conviction by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office has found that key evidence went missing, crucial witnesses were coached or ignored, and “significant evidence of police misconduct and perjured testimony,” according to court filings. The office that once sent Lucien to prison for life now believes he should be freed.
Lucien, now 48 and in state prison in Norfolk, is scheduled to appear Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court, where Judge Robert Ullmann has scheduled a hearing to consider throwing out the murder conviction.
“James Lucien did not kill Ryan Edwards,” Lucien’s attorney Dennis M. Toomey told the Globe. He said in an e-mail that his client was wrongfully convicted because “the original jury did not get to hear ... critical evidence about police detective misconduct and how that misconduct destroyed the integrity of the investigation.”
The detective at the center of the case, Brazil, had a history of misconduct so egregious prosecutors now say he likely committed perjury. And records show another detective who took the witness stand had just suffered an alcohol-fueled breakdown that left him unable to “differentiate between fact and fiction.”
A top police official had recommended that detective, George Foley, be barred from all investigations and have no contact with the public. Yet almost immediately, the department sent Foley back into the field, where he investigated the killing and testified at Lucien’s trial.
The jury knew none of this.
In an interview last month, Rollins cast doubt on the work of Brazil and his fellow detectives in other cases, and noted that their misconduct prompted another murder conviction, that of Sean Ellis, to be overturned.
“With all of this infection and cancer and rot, can I put my name on anything upholding what happened in these cases?” Rollins asked. “You are presumed innocent until we give you a fair trial. And if we don’t give you a fair trial, I can’t stand up and defend that conviction. I just can’t.”
In Lucien’s case, Rollins met with the family of Ryan Edwards before her office filed a motion in October supporting Lucien’s bid for a new trial. If the judge grants the request, Rollins has pledged not to retry Lucien on murder and armed robbery charges, clearing the way for his release.
Rollins has argued that a lesser firearm conviction should stand because Lucien acknowledged in an earlier court filing that he had a gun. He has long since completed his four- to five-year sentence for that lesser charge, Rollins said.
Lucien had lost court appeals over the years, but his case got a renewed look when his attorney applied to Rollins’s new Integrity Review Bureau. The bureau, which investigates claims of wrongful convictions, is part of a growing national effort among some prosecutors to address past injustices.
The victim’s sister, Judith Richards, told the Globe she was upset that the district attorney had reopened what she described as a premeditated robbery and murder case that tore her family apart. Regardless of any police misconduct, Richards still believed that Lucien “shot my brother in the car” and “cut his life short.”
”I feel like I have a knife stuck in my heart even talking about this,” Richards said, describing her brother as the family’s golden child who had dreams of becoming an engineer. “James Lucien really, truly shouldn’t be out of prison. He really did it.”
Another sister, Dionne Richards, was equally upset. “Because of Boston police not doing their job, he gets to get out,” she said. “But now what happens to my family?”
Boston Police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle said the department is “supportive of all efforts to rectify wrongful convictions and will continue to provide investigative support” to Rollins’s office.
“While the BPD respects the prosecutorial independence,” Boyle said, “the BPD may not always agree with every decision made by [the district attorney’s] Conviction Integrity Unit.”
Brazil, who testified with immunity in federal court about his own misconduct and the corruption of fellow officers, could not be reached for comment. He retired from the department in 1999 and continues to collect an annual pension of $45,000, records show.
The state still has the pager that Brazil claimed he found the night of June 25, 1994, when 23-year-old Ryan Edwards was shot and killed. Nearly three decades later, the pager in evidence still does not match the one in crime scene photographs.
Prosecutors alleged it was used to set up a drug deal in Roxbury. Lucien and a friend were going to buy cocaine from Edwards and his half brother, prosecutors said at trial. With $850 in cash, Lucien climbed in the backseat of a red Honda.
What happened next is in dispute, but the result was clear: A single .25 caliber bullet struck Edwards, killing him. At the time, police and prosecutors relied on the testimony of Edwards’s half brother, Alford Clarke, who told the jury that Lucien pulled a gun and robbed them, shooting Edwards from the backseat.
But there were problems with Clarke’s story. An off-duty officer who rushed to the scene testified that he heard two gunshots and that the dying victim told him he was shot by someone outside the car.
Lucien did not testify at trial, but in court filings, described a very different crime. Lucien alleged that he was the one who was robbed, and said that he and Clarke were outside the car and exchanged gunfire — which accounted for the two shots heard by the off-duty officer.
Lucien said his shot went wide. Clarke also missed, Lucien said, but Clarke’s bullet accidentally hit Edwards, who was sitting in the car. Clarke was forced to return to Jamaica after the trial and could not be reached for comment. His sister, Judith Richards, strongly disputed the notion Clarke accidentally killed his brother.
Detective work could have proved who was telling the truth, but there were “material flaws in the investigation,” the district attorney’s office now says. After the shooting, Brazil went to the hospital, but failed to collect the victim’s clothes, which would have likely been covered in gunpowder had been shot at close range.
Police also never found the murder weapon. And Clarke, the only witness to the shooting, eventually admitted that he was also carrying a gun that night. Clarke’s credibility was bolstered by Brazil, who prosecutors now say blatantly coached Clarke in interview transcripts.
A few months after the trial, Brazil’s credibility evaporated. The Globe Spotlight Team published a series that triggered Brazil’s suspension, as well as federal indictments against two of his fellow detectives, both of whom were accused of stealing more than $200,000 from people they claimed were drug dealers.
In 1998, Brazil testified in federal court with immunity, describing falsifying search warrants, fabricating informants, and lying about the surveillance of suspects. He and his colleagues used the warrants for drug raids, where some detectives underreported how much money they seized and pocketed handfuls of cash.
Lucien’s attorney suggested in a court filing that Brazil may have stolen money from the murder scene and then falsified evidence to hide the theft. Prosecutors agreed, noting in their filing Brazil’s “admitted criminal conduct during this exact time period.”
“The inference that Brazil stole the money from the crime scene and substituted money from a different case to cover his tracks is completely reasonable,” Rollins’s office wrote in an Oct. 20 court filing, adding that Brazil “likely committed perjury.”
Lucien has long claimed he brought $850 that night and lost it in a robbery. Brazil, however, reported recovering only $16, and the bills he produced had different serial numbers than the cash in crime scene photographs.
The other officer accused of misconduct was Detective George Foley, whose internal affairs record included sustained complaints for lying, breaking the law, and abusing alcohol.
That same year, Foley admitted making up false allegations in the investigation of the murder of Boston Police Detective John Mulligan, according to a 1993 police memo that described Foley being hospitalized for a breakdown that left him unable to “differentiate between fact and fiction.”
The memo speculated that Foley fabricated a suspect to solve Mulligan’s murder in an effort “to become a hero in the eyes of the only ‘family’ he had left, the Police Department.” It recommended Foley return to duty with only “limited public contact and no investigative functions.”
But months later, the department transferred Foley to the ballistics unit, where he learned on the job to be a weapons expert. Foley was dispatched to Edwards’s murder scene, where he handled key evidence and offered testimony that helped send Lucien to prison. On the stand, Foley made no mention of his breakdown or internal affairs case, telling the jury he had been out injured.
Foley was still on the force in 2011 when he died from pancreatic cancer. The department honored him and his work during its annual memorial service at Mount Hope Cemetery. But the legacy of the work of Foley and other detectives lives on.
Now, a decade later, Lucien will return to court, hoping a judge will set him free.