James Lucien shuffled into a Boston courtroom Tuesday morning in leg irons and handcuffs, as an inmate who had served a quarter-century for a murder he says he didn’t commit.
By lunchtime, Lucien walked free out of the front door of Suffolk Superior Court, where a judge had thrown out his 1995 murder conviction because the trial was marred by police misconduct and perjury.
“I’ve been waiting for a whole 27 years for this,” said Lucien, 48, who was surrounded by his family and attorney. “And now I have an opportunity to be free.”
Overwhelmed by his sudden release and a crush of television cameras, Lucien could only summon one more complete sentence: “I didn’t do it.”
“Praise Jesus!” shouted one of Lucien’s relatives.
During a brief hearing, Judge Robert Ullmann empathized with the victim’s family, who were angry Lucien was being freed. The judge acknowledged he “can’t fully understand” their pain but urged the family not to blame Lucien or his attorney or prosecutors.
“The person to blame is the lead detective in this case, Detective [John] Brazil,” Ullmann said. “If he had been honest and had done his job correctly, we would not be here.”
Before vacating the charges, Ullmann said it was clear that Brazil had “committed perjury at the trial.” The judge pointed specifically to a pager and cash that the detective claimed he seized from the crime scene but didn’t match those captured in crime scene photographs.
Brazil was a member of a corrupt unit of Boston officers who falsified evidence in the 1990s and stole money from drug dealers. Brazil, who in 1998 testified with immunity in federal court about his own misconduct and the corruption of fellow officers, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins had asked the judge to vacate Lucien’s most serious convictions after a review found key evidence had gone missing and crucial witnesses were coached or ignored.
“This case really represents a very dark episode for the Boston police and also I think for the DA’s office,” Jeanne Kempthorne, a special assistant district attorney, said in court. “There were problems infecting the investigation, the prosecution, and certainly the trial.”
Over several decades, Lucien maintained his innocence and lost his court appeals. But then his attorney, Dennis M. Toomey, applied to Rollins’s new Integrity Review Bureau, which investigates claims of wrongful convictions. Prosecutors took a new look at the case and agreed it was littered with problems.
“All of our legal claims come down to one simple truth,” Toomey told the judge. “Mr. Lucien’s trial was fundamentally unfair.”
The judge on Tuesday agreed with prosecutors that a lesser firearm conviction should stand because Lucien acknowledged in an earlier court filing that he had a gun. He had long since completed the year sentence for that charge.
Ryan Edwards was shot and killed the night of June 25, 1994, during what prosecutors had described as a robbery during a drug deal in Roxbury. Lucien and a friend were going to buy cocaine from Edwards and his half brother, prosecutors said at trial.
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 was in the car and told the jury that Lucien pulled a gun and robbed them, shooting Edwards from the backseat.
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.
On Tuesday, the judge outlined other fundamental problems with the case. Ullmann said that Boston police “failed to do an adequate investigation” of whether the fatal shot had been fired by “the victim’s half brother or someone else outside the vehicle.”
Brazil also “deliberately or recklessly failed” to secure the victim’s clothing, the judge said, losing a key piece of evidence. Police and prosecutors also failed to disclose that its weapons investigator, Detective George Foley, had serious disciplinary problems that could have called his testimony into question.
A Boston police spokesman did not immediately respond for comment.
Lucien sat largely motionless during the 40-minute hearing. One of the victim’s sisters, Dionne Richards, dabbed tears from her eyes.
“They messed up and he gets to walk free,” Richards said after the hearing.
Another sister, Judith Richards, wrote in a victim impact statement that she was “offended that James Lucien is using something serious as police corruption to shift the accountability and responsibility of his actions.”
“We recognize that we have issues in the criminal justice system including crooked cops and corrupt elected officials,” Richards wrote. “It’s a rallying cry across the United States right now but we cannot use a national cry on this ‘open and shut’ case.”
Lucien’s family saw the case much differently. Relatives said the decision by Rollins’s office to join the defense request to throw out the charges showed prosecutors were trying to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system.
“We just feel like there is truly a God and God answers prayers,” said Lucien’s cousin, Benedicte Dieujuste, who called Lucien in prison the third Thursday of each month. “It unfortunately took 27 years, but we’re grateful.”
Later Tuesday afternoon, Rollins’s office released a letter she sent to federal immigration authorities urging them to grant a visa to Clarke, the victim’s half brother, who was deported to Jamaica in 1995 after testifying. At the time, police and prosecutors promised Clarke that because of his testimony they would support his visa. A handwritten note in his file said, “John Brazil will take care of this.”
But after the conviction, police and prosecutors reneged on their promise, Rollins said. Rollins said as a result a family that had lost one son to homicide “effectively lost a second son, Alford, as well.”
“Alford delivered on his promise to testify,” Rollins wrote. “This Office never delivered on ours. That changes today.”