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When it comes to bad-apple cops, look at the whole tree

It’s not enough to release James Lucien from prison. We have to prevent more wrongful convictions like his. That means taking a big-picture approach. You’re up, Mayor Wu.

James Lucien embraced a family member as he walked out of Suffolk Superior Court a free man last week.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

This is bigger than a couple of bad-apple cops.

Unless and until we recognize that, there will be more James Luciens — and more Shaun Jenkinses, too. We’ll have more wrongful convictions, and more grieving loved ones robbed of real justice.

We’ll have the law enforcement system we settle for, in other words, not the one we need and deserve.

Lucien walked out of prison last week after serving 27 years for a murder conviction built on the work of corrupt Boston police detectives. Jenkins, temporarily released from prison in September, appears headed for freedom too, after his attorneys revealed he’d spent almost 20 years behind bars based on dirty police work.


The Globe’s Andrew Ryan has detailed both cases, and they’re shocking. But let’s focus on Lucien, convicted of first-degree murder based on testimony from detective John K. Brazil, whom the Globe Spotlight Team exposed shortly after the trial as a member of a corrupt unit which falsified and concealed evidence, fabricated informants, and stole money from drug dealers. Also testifying was detective George Foley, who had been caught lying in a different investigation (which also ended in a wrongful conviction). The Boston Police Department, treating Foley with kid gloves, put his inability to “differentiate between fact and fiction” down to the fact that he was under pressure and battling alcoholism. They barred him from all investigations and forbade him to have contact with the public. Yet, with no real training, he investigated the case as a ballistics expert, and testified — less than truthfully — at Lucien’s trial.

The jury was told nothing of this; there was so much they didn’t know. But they did notice that some of the evidence submitted in the courtroom didn’t match pictures from the crime scene. They asked the judge about it and he gave them no guidance. Even after Brazil’s corruption was revealed, the police department refused to share the internal affairs investigation that would have helped Lucien, said his attorney, Dennis Toomey.


Bless outgoing Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, soon to be the state’s US Attorney, for making the integrity of past convictions a priority. The misconduct of officers like Brazil should prompt scrutiny of every single conviction they helped win.

But bad apples don’t just appear out of thin air. They grow on trees, with roots and branches to sustain them. It takes an entire system to create the disaster of a wrongful conviction. And unless we treat the entire system, it’ll keep happening.

Veteran defense attorney James Doyle is an evangelist for this big-picture approach: “Even after you exorcize Jack Brazil or George Foley, you’re still left with the conditions and influences that made them do what they did, which made sure nobody caught them,” he said.

Preventing future disasters means not just looking back, but forward too. It’s been more than two decades since these detectives did their worst, but we need to know how much has truly changed.

Doyle’s proposal: What if we got all of the major players together — representatives of the police, prosecutors, the courts, defense attorneys, and the community, among others — and really looked at what went wrong in Lucien’s case, and what they could change so that more future cases go right? By all means, let’s identify the obvious villains. But so much more than Brazil had to go wrong here. His corruption had to be an open secret in the department. Why was he invincible for so long? Why did Foley’s superiors give him the benefit of the doubt? Why did the prosecutors and judges make the decisions they did? Most importantly: Could this happen again?


If we were ever going to do things differently, now is the time. Boston has in new mayor Michelle Wu a big-picture thinker eager to make momentous change. She will choose the city’s new police commissioner. And we will soon have a new Suffolk County DA.

It’s tempting to see what happened almost three decades ago as ancient history. But this isn’t over for Lucien, who will never get those 27 years back. And it sure isn’t over for those who loved the victim in this case, who still believe Lucien killed him.

They, and we, deserve a proper accounting — one that will make everyone safer.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.