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‘They were willing to let me die in there.’ The sins of Boston police past are leading to overturned convictions and prison releases

Clockwise from top left: Shaun Jenkins. Served 18 years. Motion for a new trial pending. Released 9/24/2021; Robert Foxworth. Served nearly 30 years. Conviction vacated. Nolle prossed. Released 12/23/20; James Lucien. Served 27 years. Conviction vacated. nolle prossed. Released 12/7/21; Tyrone Clark. Served 47 years. Conviction vacated. Nolle prossed. Released. 11/24/21 ; Ronald D. Qualls. Served 27 years. Conviction vacated. Nolle prossed. Released 03/10/2020 ; Raymond Gaines. Served 45 years. Motion for a new trial pending. Released 4/28/2021Globe Staff, courtesy photos and Jenifer McKim/GBH

In October, two Boston homicide detectives flew to Virginia to interview a key witness from a 2005 murder trial, a man whose claims of police misconduct now threatened to unravel a decades-old murder conviction.

Police and prosecutors usually work as a team in the search for truth. But not in this case.

One of the officers, Sergeant Detective Michael Devane, told the witness that he disagreed with a new district attorney’s office unit vetting old convictions for possible injustices, according to a transcript of their October interview filed in court. Devane denigrated the new unit as “reckless,” telling the witness that the prosecutors did not “believe in life sentences.”

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“There’s all these woke kind of people,” said Devane, who added that “these people have an agenda . . . and they’re trying to unearth everything.”

In the past two years, plenty has been unearthed. Since 2020, judges have released at least nine men from prison because of Boston police or prosecutorial misconduct, shoddy investigations, or evidence that pointed to someone else. The men, almost all of whom are Black, had each served two decades or more and faced sentences as long as life.

The driving force behind many of the cases is Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s Integrity Review Bureau. With each new revelation of wrongdoing or injustice come increasing questions about the police department’s willingness to reckon with the sins of its past and reexamine its work, particularly when victims of that injustice remain behind bars.

Devane’s recent comments to the witness in Virginia underscore the insular culture of a department that, as is common in police ranks, protects its own and fiercely resists outside scrutiny. Despite promises by leadership to reform for the future, some detectives are fighting to safeguard the past.

“They never admit that they do anything wrong,” said former Boston police lieutenant Tom Nolan, who now teaches at Emmanuel College. “That’s firmly grounded in the police subculture: Never backtrack, never second guess a fellow officer, never admit you make a mistake.”

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In just the last few months, three men serving life sentences have been freed from prison.

The detectives traveled in October to Virginia because a state judge had just temporarily released Shaun Jenkins amid allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The judge is currently weighing whether Jenkins, who had served 18 years behind bars, should get a new trial.

Days earlier, a different judge had vacated a murder conviction against James Lucien, freeing him after 27 years behind bars because a detective had committed perjury at trial in 1995.

Last month, another judge vacated a rape conviction against Tyrone J. Clark, freeing him after serving nearly 50 years in prison. In her ruling, which left in place lesser convictions, the judge decried the “negligence” of Boston police, and noted key physical evidence had gone missing.

In April, yet another judge ordered the temporary release of Raymond Gaines, who had spent more than four decades in prison for murder. In freeing Gaines, this time over the objection of prosecutors, the judge cited the involvement of a now dead Boston detective who had “coerced and threatened witnesses” in another case.

Gaines is free while fighting for a new trial. In his case and others, judges also cited the heightened dangers of COVID-19 for those confined to prison, as underscoring the urgency of promptly addressing questionable convictions.

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Rollins, who will soon leave office to serve as US attorney for Massachusetts, said in a November interview that her administration found convictions that had been secured by unethical, unconstitutional, and in some cases, criminal, practices.

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke during a press conference at the Boston Police Headquarters media room. She launched the Integrity Review Bureau in 2019.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“We’ve had problems in the past, but we aren’t lying about our problems,” said Rollins. “Nobody is perfect. We have work we need to do as law enforcement.”

Rollins added that a few Boston police officers’ names appeared in questionable cases “too many times for me to believe it’s a coincidence.”

In a follow-up statement Friday, Rollins said that when she launched the bureau, she “recognized the natural tension” it would create, and added, “that’s how you know we’re doing it right.” She said her team has unearthed a handful of tainted convictions they quickly pushed to remedy.

It remains unclear how aggressively Suffolk County prosecutors will scrutinize past convictions once Rollins departs. The willingness to take a hard look at old cases can depend on who’s in charge.

The work of redressing old wrongs has been vital to Robert Foxworth, 54, who served nearly 30 years for murder until being exonerated days before Christmas 2020. Boston police and prosecutors coached and coerced a teenager to implicate Foxworth in the killing, records now show, but his pleas of innocence went unheard for decades.

“Rollins did what was morally right,” Foxworth said in an interview, his voice tinged with emotion. “They were willing to let me die in there. If she had not been the DA, I would’ve been stuck.”

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Robert Foxworth spent nearly 30 years in prison for murder until he was exonerated in December 2020. He just moved into his own apartment. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Boston police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle declined to address specific cases but said the department was reviewing the recent comments made by Devane. Boyle said the department was aware prosecutors had agreed to vacate several murder convictions.

“The BPD is supportive of all efforts to rectify wrongful convictions and will continue to provide investigative support,” Boyle said. “While the BPD respects the prosecutorial independence, the BPD may not always agree with every decision made by the [district attorney’s] Conviction Integrity Unit.”

The unraveling cases have cast new scrutiny on a department that this year has weathered a series of other scandals also rooted in its past.

Police commissioner Dennis White was ousted after the Globe unearthed decades-old domestic violence allegations that had been minimized or ignored as he rose through the ranks to lead the department. Amid the fallout, a City of Boston-commissioned investigation found that today’s department had a culture of fear and silence.

In April, another Globe investigation revealed that police officials allowed former patrolman and union president Patrick M. Rose Sr. to remain on the force for two decades after determining in the mid-1990s that he more than likely molested a child.

During this same era, some in the department failed in other ways. The recently overturned murder conviction of James Lucien highlighted another breakdown in discipline.

Officials in 1994 allowed a detective to play a key role in the murder case even though an internal memo had recommended that he be barred from any investigative work. The detective, supervisors determined, had falsely identified a suspect during an alcohol-fueled breakdown that had left him unable to “differentiate between fact and fiction.”

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Another detective on Lucien’s case was a member of a corrupt cohort of Boston officers who falsified evidence and stole money from drug dealers. That detective, John K . Brazil, ultimately testified with immunity in federal court about his own misconduct. He retired from the department in 1999 and continues to collect an annual pension of $45,000, records show.

But in the wake of Lucien’s conviction, the police department actively fought the release of Brazil’s disciplinary files, court records show. Lucien’s attorney, Dennis M. Toomey, said that some of the information leading to his client’s freedom could have come to light two decades earlier — if only the department had been forthcoming.

James Lucien (right) stood with his attorney, Dennis Toomey, as he spoke after walking out of Suffolk Superior Court a free man on Dec. 7. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“It’s naive to think that if a police officer has committed misconduct that it is related to one single case,” Toomey said. “If nothing else, it should be disclosed to the defense attorneys, who know more about the cases, so they can potentially connect the dots.”

Across the country, exonerations and vacated sentences have gained prominence in recent months, from two men wrongly convicted in the murder of Malcolm X to a Missouri man exonerated in three killings after 43 years in prison.

“Nobody gets it right all the time,” said Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks all known cases in which convicted defendants are proved innocent. “You should want to do that if you care about justice.”

In Boston, a higher-than-average number of exonerations involve police or prosecutorial misconduct, according to data collected by Possley’s group. The data for Suffolk County show that in the last three decades 75 percent of exonerations — 26 of 34 cases — have involved improper behavior by law enforcement. Other cases were overturned due to new DNA analysis or mistaken identifications by witnesses. The figures do not include recently vacated verdicts and only include cases in which the defendant was exonerated.

In an effort to root out bad cases, conviction integrity units such as the one in Suffolk County have taken root in prosecutors’ offices across the country. This spring a group of prosecutors and influential legal experts issued a report through the Massachusetts Bar Association urging all district attorneys offices to establish a conviction integrity program.

The report noted that prosecutors have a duty to “rectify the conviction of innocent persons and other miscarriages of justice.” The group laid out dozens of recommendations, which included creating a database to track law enforcement misconduct and keeping a list of problematic investigators involved in tainted cases. A new task force will help prosecutors’ offices with trainings, data collection, and other expertise.

Rollins launched her Integrity Review Bureau after taking office in 2019. The bureau has a number of functions, which include maintaining a list of troubled officers, examining outcomes in old cases for unjust sentences, and vetting wrongful conviction claims.

Some of the work had been done before Rollins took office, but she said she consolidated the efforts under a designated unit. The office has a link on its website where defendants can request an application.

Once a case has been accepted, prosecutors work in a more collaborative way with defense attorneys, allowing them broader access to records. But in this work, a judge must approve changes to a conviction or a sentence.

Since 2020, the unit has received 90 applications; about a third were rejected outright, according to prosecutors. Another 62 are under review or at some stage in the court system. Rollins’s office pointed to 14 cases in which defendants have been granted some type of relief, which has included vacated convictions, parole, downgraded charges, or being released from prison while a judge weighs the merits of a new trial.

The tally includes Sean Ellis, whose case drew national attention from a 2020 Netflix documentary, “Trial 4.” Ellis had been freed in 2015 after serving 22 years in prison for the murder of Boston police Detective John Mulligan. Earlier this year, a judge threw out Ellis’s last remaining charge.

The case that sent detectives to Virginia earlier this year dated to December 2001, when 30-year-old Stephen Jenkins was shot dead in Dorchester. Detectives zeroed in on the victim’s cousin, Shaun Jenkins, and he was convicted at trial in 2005. Earlier this month, his attorney, Lisa M. Kavanaugh, argued that police failed to investigate another potential killer.

Recently released records support that claim. A 2003 memo from the case’s first prosecutor outlined her “lack of faith in the investigation” but noted that, “Sergeant Detective [Daniel] Keeler and his squad . . . feel strongly that Shaun Jenkins should be prosecuted.”

Investigators knew that the victim had lost a stash of drugs and owed his drug supplier $3,000. But prosecutors in the 2005 trial failed to disclose cellphone records, which showed the victim was in repeated contact with the drug supplier, who lived less than two blocks from the site of the shooting.

As lawyers reexamined the case, the police department earlier this year was slow to turn over its file, even under an order from a judge. When the department finally disclosed the records, there were other new revelations.

Detectives, the records showed, had withheld three police reports of witness interviews and a memo documenting that Keeler gave a reluctant witness $100 the day he testified before a grand jury. Because no one saw the shooting, that witness played a key role.

This fall, prosecutors cited the withheld records and urged a judge to temporarily release Jenkins. He walked free in late September, pending his bid for a new trial.

A week later, Devane and another homicide detective flew to Virginia to meet with the witness who had been paid $100.

After the 2005 conviction, the witness recanted. He worked with lawyers, signed four affidavits, and alleged Keeler had coerced his testimony.

Sergeant Detective Michael Devane testified during a double murder trial in Suffolk Superior Court in 2019.Faith Ninivaggi/Pool

Devane, experts said, probably should have been kept off the case. First, Devane served with Keeler in the homicide unit. And second, Devane knew the witness, who had a criminal history, when Devane worked in the gang unit. (The police spokesman defended Devane’s involvement, saying the detective works with the integrity bureau and was dispatched under the direction of the district attorney’s office.)

So Devane went to Virginia. The witness changed his story again, telling Devane he was sticking with his original testimony.

“This isn’t the first case I’ve had a disagreement,” Devane told the witness, according to the interview transcript filed in court. “They’re trying to say, you know, if Keeler has something to do with it, that’s what they’re going to hang their hat on.”

Devane declined to comment and the department refused to make him available for an interview. Keeler, who retired in 2016 and collects a pension of about $106,000 annually, could not be reached for comment.

These type of investigations require that traditional adversaries — police and prosecutors and defense attorneys — work together to get to the truth, said Marissa Bluestine, an assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

“They involve trust and transparency,” Bluestine said. “That does not seem to have been achieved in this example.”


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him @globeandrewryan.