Shawn Drumgold was 23 and living in Roxbury with his girlfriend and their baby daughter in the summer of 1988 when a 12-year-old girl was shot to death while sitting on a mailbox, an innocent victim caught in gang crossfire.
Despite Mr. Drumgold’s claims that he was blocks away at the time, he was convicted of first-degree murder in 1989 for Darlene Tiffany Moore’s death and sentenced to life in prison.
Fourteen years later, Mr. Drumgold won his freedom after the case, built largely on eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence, fell apart. His conviction was overturned following revelations that police had withheld evidence at trial and a prosecution witness was impaired by brain cancer when she identified Mr. Drumgold as a suspect. He was later awarded $5 million in a wrongful conviction case against the city and a police detective. Family and friends said he moved on with his life.
“He was on the straight and narrow; that’s why nobody has heard from or seen Shawn for the last 17 years,” said Lori Washington, Mr. Drumgold’s partner of 17 years. “He was busy taking care of his family.”
On Monday, Mr. Drumgold died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital after suffering an aortic aneurysm, according to Washington. He was 57.
Mr. Drumgold’s death “was out of the blue,” Washington, 58, said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. He collapsed Saturday in the corridor two doors away from their Bridgewater apartment while bringing groceries in after a trip to BJ’s. She said neighbors came running to alert her.
“He talks to everyone here,” she said. “Everyone in the complex’s hearts are broken right now.”
Mr. Drumgold was flown to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he underwent a 9-1/2 hour surgery and doctors discovered he had a heart aneurysm, Washington said. He suffered several strokes during the surgery, she said and died two days later from complications.
Mr. Drumgold wanted to be cremated and did not want a funeral, Washington said. “I’m doing his wishes. I’m not having a service.”
She said she did not want people “to remember him as the man who got wrongfully convicted and fought 15-1/2 years to get out of jail.”
Instead, she would like Mr. Drumgold to be remembered as a family man who just wanted a peaceful life.
He helped raise her six children, now all adults. Washington’s 10 grandchildren called him “Papa Shawn.”
“Things just aren’t going to be right without him,” Washington said. “I’m at a loss for words. He was my life partner.”
She said her children were torn apart.
“We gave him what he wanted,” Washington said. “He always wanted to be a loving husband, a dad, and grandfather.”
Mr. Drumgold’s oldest brother, Stephen Shanks, 67, of Pawtucket, R.I., last saw him on Mr. Drumgold’s birthday, June 2.
Mr. Drumgold, Shanks, two other brothers, and two sisters were raised by their mother, Juanda Drumgold, in the South End, then moved to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Brockton.
“Mom took care of everything,” Shanks said.
Mr. Drumgold was an outdoorsy kid, Shanks said, and was the first in the family to ride on an airplane back in the ‘70s.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about him right now,” Shanks said Wednesday evening. “I’m still mourning.”
Shanks said his brother had a “fun-loving” spirit.
“He was a jokester. He was fun to be around. He was the life of the party,” Shanks said.
Mr. Drumgold was well loved and returned that love, Shanks said. “He didn’t have no enemies. He loved everyone.”
Rosemary Scapicchio, a prominent Boston lawyer who represented Mr. Drumgold on appeal and fought for years to get his conviction overturned, said in a phone interview Wednesday that she received word from his family that he had died.
“He was so much more than his wrongful conviction,” Scapicchio said. “His family was so important to him, and he was so grateful ... to be able to enjoy his family, which he couldn’t do when he was incarcerated.”
Shawn Drumgold was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of Tiffany Moore, whose death was blamed on a feud between gangs that exploded into gunfire on the night of Aug. 19, 1988. Moore was struck by bullets fired by two masked men who authorities said were aiming for a suspected gang member standing nearby, according to court records.
Mr. Drumgold took the stand at his Suffolk Superior Court trial and testified he was not near the shooting scene, and had a friend testify in support of his alibi. But jurors found him guilty of the slaying and his conviction was later upheld by the state Supreme Judicial Court.
Scapicchio raised new issues on appeal, alleging Boston police had failed to turn over evidence at trial. Then in 2003, the Boston Globe reported newly uncovered evidence that cast doubt on Mr. Drumgold’s conviction. One key prosecution witness faced a raft of criminal charges that were dismissed soon after he testified. Another, who said she saw Drumgold leaving the murder scene, was suffering from a deadly brain cancer. That evidence wasn’t shared with the defense.
In 2003, a judge vacated Mr. Drumgold’s conviction, saying “justice was not done” at his trial.
No one has been charged since the Drumgold prosecution for the murder of Moore.
In 2009, a federal jury awarded $14 million in damages to Mr. Drumgold after finding that a police detective had contributed to the wrongful conviction by failing to tell prosecutors that he had housed, fed, and paid a key prosecution witness in the case. After an appeals court overturned the verdict based on improper jury instructions by the trial judge, the city settled the suit for $5 million.
“He was so grateful that the civil jury found in his favor,” Scapicchio said Wednesday. “To just have that validation for what happened to him, I think, allowed him to go on and be a better person.”
She added, “I would hope that Shawn’s legacy is that he fought hard to clear his name. What he really wanted to do was spend time with his family and live his life. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
Dick Lehr, a former Boston Globe staffer who worked on the 2003 Globe investigation that helped trigger Mr. Drumgold’s release, said Wednesday that he had met with Mr. Drumgold last week, for the first time in years, and was shocked by his death.
“He was targeted by police and wrongfully convicted for a horrific killing,” said Lehr, crediting Mr. Drumgold’s family and Scapicchio with fighting for years to win his freedom. He said he was grateful that he had a chance to meet with Mr. Drumgold for a few hours last week.
“He looked good and he sounded good,” Lehr said. “He had that easy smile and sparkle in his eye...he seemed happy.”
Mr. Drumgold’s son and namesake, Shawn Drumgold, 37, of Hazlet, N.J., a practicing Muslim like his father, said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen or spoken to him in eight years but still their faith bonded them together.
“He was a man who was very deep into his faith,” Drumgold said. “I believe wholeheartedly that my father would have wanted everyone to know his faith and conviction in Islam.”
Drumgold and his sister, Rashawna Lewis, who lives in New York City, have the same mother.
Their father had two other children, Shawn Drumgold said, a son and a daughter from a different mother.
Drumgold said he met his half-siblings once after his father got out of prison.
Transition from being locked up to freedom wasn’t an easy path for his father, Drumgold said. He went through a “very private” and “isolated” spell.
“He was one of those people who had a heart of gold,” Drumgold said. “He was very genuine. He was a people pleaser, always looking out for people and trying to do for others.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Tonya Alanez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.