Victor Rosario raised his fist in victory Wednesday morning outside Boston’s federal court as he celebrated the $13 million settlement he will receive from the city of Lowell, which he won after spending more than 30 years in prison wrongly convicted of arson.
“More than half of my life was spent behind the walls of Massachusetts state prisons and under court supervision,” said Rosario, 65. “Today this chapter ended and a new chapter begins for me.”
In 1982, Rosario tried to save people in a burning building, his attorney, Mark Loevy-Reyes, said. Several days later, however, Lowell police concluded the fire was an act of arson using what is now considered “junk science,” Loevy-Reyes said. Rosario, whose first language is Spanish, said police took advantage of the language barrier to force a confession out of him, and he was convicted a year later at the age of 24.
Rosario was released from prison in 2014 after a Middlesex Superior Court judge vacated his conviction. Judge Kathe M. Tuttman ruled that the questionable quality of arson evidence, paired with new evidence that Rosario experienced psychosis due to alcohol withdrawal when he was arrested, raised doubts about the legitimacy of his confession.
Loevy-Reyes said his team was prepared to go to trial in federal court later this month against the city of Lowell and police investigators for violating Rosario’s civil rights when they got the news Tuesday evening that the Lowell City Council had approved the $13 million settlement. As part of the settlement, the police officers responsible for arresting and convicting Rosario will not face any consequences.
“There are no winners today. Victor has received some justice, but he hasn’t completely been made whole,” Loevy-Reyes said. “No number is ever going to compensate him ... but to Lowell’s credit, they did step up.”
In the past eight months, Loevy-Reyes said his firm has won roughly $58 million in settlements and verdicts for wrongful convictions across Massachusetts, including in Lynn, Worcester, and Braintree. Loevy-Reyes said the last settlement of this size in Massachusetts was the $16 million the city of Boston paid in 2021 to Sean Ellis, who was also wrongfully convicted.
Locke Bowman, another attorney who represented Rosario, said Lowell’s decision to agree to the settlement “reflects an acknowledgment that what happened wasn’t right.”
Tearing up, Rosario urged city officials across the Commonwealth to “do your very best to not let what happened to me, in the future, be what happens to one more.”
Standing proudly with his arm around Rosario Wednesday was his “brother exoneree,” Natale Cosenza, who was awarded $8 million by a jury last fall after being wrongfully indicted in Worcester for armed burglary and assault in 2000. The city of Worcester, however, appealed the judgment in February, and Cosenza is still waiting on a ruling.
“It’s an extreme, tough struggle we deal with, so I’m insanely proud and happy” for Rosario, Cosenza said. “My biggest hope is that Worcester looks at Lowell ... and decides to do the right thing.”
Reflecting on the conclusion of his three-decade journey to freedom, Rosario painted a bittersweet picture of the highs and lows since his release. Most devastating was not being able to celebrate his freedom with his mother, who would periodically make the trip up from Puerto Rico to visit him in prison. She died in 2007. Even when he was first released on an ankle monitor, it plagued him that he couldn’t “see her body and let her know that I’m here.”
But one source of reprieve was the passion for running that Rosario discovered while inside. Every year on his birthday, whatever age he was turning, he would take that many laps around the prison compound. His first year of total freedom, unconfined by prison walls or monitors, he said he ran from Brighton all the way to Lowell.
As he opens a new chapter, one that features more time with the four children and eight grandchildren he never had the opportunity to see grow up, Rosario said he’s taking the joys of his new life one day at a time. He has no grandiose plans for the $13 million beyond using it “to help others in my position.”
Instead, he said his focus as he comes to terms with the settlement is forgiving the investigators who worked to arrest and convict him all those years ago.
“One of the things about moving forward is learning how to forgive ... [otherwise] my life will always be in prison,” he said. “Before, I was a survivor. Today, I’m living.”