After serving more than three decades in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit, Thomas Rosa was granted a new trial this week by a Suffolk Superior Court judge after new DNA testing cast doubt on whether he was the killer.
Justice Michael Ricciuti wrote on Wednesday in a court order allowing the new trial that Rosa’s 1993 conviction for the murder of 18-year old Gwendolyn Taylor was “based on evidence that was far from overwhelming … all of which has been called into question.”
Rosa, 62, and originally from Chelsea, was released from prison in October 2020 pending the judge’s decision and allowed to return to his wife’s home in Everett. According to his attorneys, he has been “really relishing his freedom, and the ability to reunite with friends and family.”
“It’s so hard to get the criminal legal system to admit when a mistake has been made and to take corrective action. So it’s incredibly moving that it happened in this case, and yet, we’re still not done fighting,” said Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, who represents Rosa alongside Charlotte Whitmore of the Boston College Innocence Program.
Because Rosa is still facing criminal charges, Natarajan said, he is unable to comment directly on the ruling. However, he and his family will be at a press conference Monday morning outside Suffolk Superior Court where attorneys will discuss what’s next for his case.
James Borghesani, spokesman for District Attorney Kevin Hayden, said the office is “reviewing the ruling and will announce our decision at a future date.”
If the Suffolk district attorney chooses to move forward with the trial, rather than dropping the charges altogether, it will be Rosa’s fourth.
His first trial, in October 1986, resulted in a hung jury. In his second trial later that year, he was convicted on all charges, but the state’s highest court reversed the decision after Rosa’s attorney raised concerns about how the case was prosecuted.
At Rosa’s third trial in early 1993, prosecutors hinged their argument on the testimony of two eyewitnesses and tests of bodily fluids collected during an autopsy of the victim and on Rosa’s jacket.
Prosecutors used blood-type analysis to argue that bodily fluids found on the victim matched Rosa’s blood type and that fluids found on Rosa’s jacket matched the victim’s blood type. At the time, DNA testing, which was invented in the 1980s, was still in its infancy. The first DNA profile was used in a criminal investigation in England in 1986.
Rosa requested DNA testing of the evidence twice — first in 2001 and again in 2017. He then hired a DNA expert who concluded the DNA on Rosa’s jacket did not belong to the victim, nor was Rosa’s DNA found on swabs collected from the victim.
In 2021, after Rosa filed a motion for a new trial, the Suffolk district attorney’s office hired its own DNA expert to review the tests. Based on that expert’s report, prosecutors early last year “conceded that a new trial was warranted,” according to court documents.
“The new DNA evidence excluding Rosa debunks the prosecution’s closing statement connecting the victim to the brown jacket and thus to Rosa,” Ricciuti wrote in his court order.
According to the order, prosecutors also initially asserted that eyewitness testimony from 1993 was especially reliable “because the extreme stress and trauma they experienced significantly improved their memory” and that the confidence with which witnesses identified Rosa was “devastating evidence” against him.
However, Ricciuti said modern eyewitness science “undermines many of the Commonwealth’s arguments” and suggests the witnesses’ abilities to accurately identify Rosa were “not as strong as the Commonwealth argued they were.”
Whitmore said Rosa’s case is one among dozens of wrongful convictions that underscores a need for people to turn a more critical eye to outcomes within the justice system, particularly as forensic science and other technology has radically improved over the past three decades.
“Our criminal justice system is fallible,” she said, “and we need to recognize that and be able to correct that in a more efficient manner than happened in this particular case.”
Natarajan called Hayden’s decision not to object to the motion for a new trial “an example of what [district attorneys] should be doing” across the state, and said she is hopeful Hayden “will decide to end this nightmare right now.”
“There’s lot of pressure to arrest and convict someone for a very serious case, and this is a very serious case,” she added. “But it’s not public safety to incarcerate the wrong person; it’s a false sense of safety.”