In his first moment of freedom, Stephen Pina burst into the hallway in Suffolk Superior Court on Wednesday and nearly tackled his 28-year-old son, both men crying as they hugged for the first time outside prison.
“This is what wrongful convictions look like,” Pina, 54, told a small crowd of supporters who snapped photographs of the three men. “This has to stop now.”
Pina has not yet been exonerated. But Suffolk Superior Judge Peter B. Krupp on Wednesday questioned whether justice had been done in Pina’s conviction for a 1993 murder, and ordered his release from prison while the court considers his bid for a new trial. The decision enabled a man who spent 28 years behind bars — and always maintained his innocence — the chance to sleep that night at his mother’s house in Dorchester.
In his order, Krupp cited new revelations that prosecutors and Boston police withheld evidence that could have pointed to another killer, and buried compromising information about a key witness. The judge also said there was a “fairly high” likelihood that Pina would win a new trial. But first, the court will hold a hearing next month to take a closer look at the evidence.
“We still have a fight ahead of us,” said Pina’s attorney, Ira Gant of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “This is not a full exoneration yet, but this is a giant step forward. Not only does he get to be with his family, but it is the court announcing we have very favorable grounds for a new trial.”
Pina’s case came under new scrutiny during the tenure of former Suffolk district attorney Rachael Rollins, whose Integrity Review Bureau helped uncover evidence that had been withheld from the defense during Pina’s trial. As Rollins was leaving office to become US attorney for Massachusetts, she filed a motion acknowledging that Pina had “raised substantial issues” in his case.
The case will be an early test of whether new Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden will be as aggressive as his predecessor in seeking to uncover problematic convictions. Hayden has so far stopped short of endorsing Pina’s bid for a new trial.
In a statement following Wednesday’s order, Hayden’s office noted that it had agreed to an additional hearing “to provide a more substantive review of the facts surrounding this case.” The statement also noted that the review bureau remains in place and has Hayden’s “support for its ongoing mission.”
The Boston Police Department declined to comment on Pina’s release because the issues were pending before the court, according to a department spokesman.
Judges have released at least nine other men from prison since 2020 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 was the Integrity Review Bureau. In Boston, a higher-than-average number of exonerations involve police or prosecutorial misconduct, according to data collected by the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks all known cases in which convicted defendants are proved innocent.
Pina’s case dates to the night of Feb. 26, 1993, when a gunman grabbed Keith Robinson by the lapel of his jacket and fatally shot him outside a public housing complex in Mission Hill. The gunman dropped his weapon and ran. A group of people witnessed the slaying, and two of them eventually pointed a finger at Pina, although issues have been raised with both identifications.
The judge’s order Wednesday noted that one witness was a heroin user who initially described his level of confidence while identifying Pina as six out of 10. The second witness, who was pivotal to the case, offered a different account of the shooting and initially did not identify Pina as the shooter.
That witness testified against Pena while she was hospitalized at Taunton State Hospital, following a suicide attempt in prison. Prosecutors now acknowledge that information should’ve been shared with Pina’s lawyers.
“There is indication that a Boston homicide detective and the prosecutor knew of [the witness’s] psychiatric hospitalization, but did not disclose it to the defense at trial,” the judge wrote.
Prosecutors acknowledged in a filing that evidence related to the witness’s “significant, lengthy, and complex history of mental health and substance use issues would have very likely provided the defendant with information that might have been used to cast doubt upon the reliability of her identification.”
The judge also cited compelling evidence that another man — who fit the description of the shooter and had a connection to the murder weapon — could have been the culprit.
“It is exculpatory evidence. It was in the prosecution team’s possession at the time of trial, but was not disclosed as required,” the judge wrote. “As the Commonwealth all but admits, it strongly suggests on the existing record that ‘justice may not have been done’ in this case.”
Eight months after the killing, Pina was living in Georgia. He learned in October 1993 that he was wanted on a murder charge.
“I got a phone call,” Pina recalled Wednesday, describing how he came back to Boston to turn himself in. “I knew I didn’t kill anybody so I said, let me go back. I knew they were making a mistake.”
Once in custody, Pina met Ellis, who had been accused and convicted of killing Boston police detective John J. Mulligan. Ellis served nearly 22 years in prison before being freed and ultimately exonerated.
“I’ve always believed 100 percent that Steve is innocent,” Ellis said, recalling that he met Pina during his arraignment. “I’ve known him since 1993.”
Jones, who served 32 years in prison before being released and exonerated, described growing up with Pina in prison.
“He’s just naturally a good dude,” Jones said. “You know that some people in jail just aren’t supposed to be there. Me, him, and Sean would talk about it, being innocent. People say that everybody in jail says they’re innocent, but we know the difference. When you’re really innocent, the language is different.”
As Pina walked out of court into a swirl of snow, he continued talking about that innocence.
“My main goal from day one has always been to prove my innocence and get exonerated,” Pina said. “All I want to do is clear my name and let it be known that I’m innocent. That vindication is not only for me, it’s for my mother and my son and his mother.
“This 28 years has been just as hard on them.”