A judge has released a man from prison and is weighing whether to throw out his decades-old murder conviction because newly uncovered files show Boston police detectives paid a key witness and prosecutors buried evidence that could have pointed to another killer.
In a hearing Thursday morning, Superior Court Judge Kenneth W. Salinger said he has not yet decided whether to grant Shaun Jenkins a new trial, but the judge already demonstrated how seriously he is taking the misconduct revelations. In September, Salinger ordered Jenkins’s temporary release, freeing him after he served nearly 20 years behind bars.
Jenkins’s release and the potential unraveling of his case had not been reported publicly until now. It comes in the wake of a succession of overturned verdicts, including the conviction of James Lucien, who was freed Tuesday after 27 years behind bars because of misconduct by different Boston police detectives.
In Jenkins’s case, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office acknowledged that detectives wrongly withheld four police reports. One document described Sergeant Detective Daniel Keeler giving a reluctant witness $100 the day he testified before a grand jury. Another police record that outlined Keeler’s interview with the same key witness showed inconsistencies from the witness’s later testimony.
A Boston police spokesman declined Thursday to discuss the alleged misconduct, calling it an active case. Keeler could not be reached for comment. The former detective, who retired in 2016 after nearly 40 years, is a polarizing figure who has played a role in other verdicts that have since been overturned.
Prosecutors in the 2005 trial also failed to disclose the victim’s cellphone records, which potentially pointed to a different suspect. Investigators knew that the victim had lost a stash of drugs and owed his drug supplier $3,000.
The cellphone records showed that on the day of the killing, the victim was in repeated contact with the drug supplier, including a phone call minutes before being shot. His body was found in Dorchester less than two blocks from the supplier’s house.
Despite the urging of prosecutors back then, there is no evidence detectives seriously investigated the supplier, who died months later in an overdose.
“We have a police department that decided they knew what happened and therefore failed to investigate this other person,” said Jenkins’s attorney, Lisa M. Kavanaugh, director of the Innocence Program at the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “Then we have a prosecutor who capitalized on the defense ignorance of that information during the course of trial.”
The prosecutor who handled the 2005 case, Timothy J. Bradl, knew about the drug supplier as potential culprit, records show. Bradl e-mailed the homicide squad, telling detectives that one of the “pillars of proving this case” was “debunking the drug dealer (now dead?) as the ‘real killer.’”
But in court, Bradl made legal arguments that contradicted the records in the prosecution’s file, according to Jenkins’s attorney. The law requires evidence to meet a certain standard in order for defense attorneys to use it to implicate someone else. Bradl argued successfully at trial that Jenkins’s attorney did not have enough to point the finger at another killer.
On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed, citing a lack of evidence. But the court didn’t know about the phone records.
Reached before Thursday’s hearing, Bradl said there was “no intentional wrongdoing,” but he declined to comment in detail.
If the judge in Jenkins’s case overturns the verdict, the decision of whether to retry him could fall to Rollins’s office. But she was confirmed this week as the next US attorney for Massachusetts and is expected to leave office soon. It’s unclear who will succeed her. In similar cases, Rollins has dropped the charges, citing the interest of justice.
At the hearing Thursday, which was held remotely via Zoom, the district attorney’s general counsel, Donna Patalano, said that “justice may not have been done” in Jenkins’s conviction. For the victim’s relatives, Patalano acknowledged, it’s painful that justice may never come.
But key evidence — documents that had been specifically requested by Jenkins’s attorney — were never disclosed, until recently.
“When you look at all of the pieces of evidence that were not provided by the prosecution team, it is hard to imagine that the evidence would not have had some influence on the jury,” Patalano said.
In 2005, a jury convicted Jenkins of fatally shooting his cousin, Stephen Jenkins, 30, in what prosecutors had described as a fight over drug turf and customers. The victim’s mother urged the judge to keep the verdict or retry Jenkins.
“My life has not been the same since losing my only son at the hands of my nephew,” Janice Jenkins wrote in a letter to the judge. “Please know that my family and I fully understand the guilt of my nephew Shaun, which was evident during the initial trial.”
Shaun Jenkins has always said he didn’t kill his cousin. No physical evidence tied him to the scene, and no one testified that Jenkins, who lived in Fall River, was anywhere near Dorchester, according to his attorney.
Stephen Jenkins was found shot dead in the driver’s seat of a running Lincoln Town Car near Dorchester’s Ronan Park. No one witnessed the killing.
Jenkins lost appeals over the years, even after witnesses recanted and allegations emerged that Keeler paid witnesses. But his attorneys had difficulty proving their claims.
Jenkins’s attorney took the case to Rollins’s new Integrity Review Bureau, which investigates wrongful conviction claims. His lawyer took advantage of the bureau’s “open discovery” process, which allowed her to page through the prosecution’s case file. She hit pay dirt.
After 20 years, some of the withheld documents were right there.
A 2003 memo from the case’s first prosecutor, Lynn D. Brennan, outlined her “lack of faith in the investigation” as she argued against indicting Jenkins.
Brennan acknowledged in her memo that, “Sergeant Detective [Daniel] Keeler and his squad and the family [of the victim] feel strongly that Shaun Jenkins should be prosecuted.”