Freedom remains tenuous for freed prisoner
It has been two years since a judge freed Victor Rosario from prison, and he says it has been a new life. After serving 32 years behind bars for a deadly arson fire he says he did not set, the 59-year-old ordained minister has performed weddings and baptisms, and founded a church group to help former prisoners adjust back to society. He has also become a long-distance runner, and is set to run the New York City Marathon Nov. 6.
But two days after the race, Rosario will be back in court. Middlesex County District Attorney Marian T. Ryan appealed the 2014 decision that granted Rosario a new trial, challenging the judge’s assertion that he may have been under a psychotic episode at the time he confessed to the crimes. On Nov. 8, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments on whether Ryan has to retry Rosario in the 1982 fire that tore through a dilapidated three-decker in Lowell, killing eight people, including five young children.
In a recent interview, Rosario said he is learning to enjoy his freedom, and tries to not think about being sent back to prison.
“At this point, I’m adjusting to the situation, adjusting to the environment, and I am here enjoying every second of it,” Rosario said.
In the last two years, he preached at church services across the state; voted for the first time, and obtained his driver’s license; he saw a brother in Florida, a son in the Bronx, and visited a grandson in Providence.
He has appreciated the new world: The smells of perfume and cologne. The colors. New colors, not like the blues and grays that painted the prison system.
He and his wife, Beverly – whom he met in prison, during an educational program she was teaching – also run a nonprofit called Remember Those in Captivity Ministries, which helps ex-convicts readjust to life after prison.
And he hasn’t forgotten, either. He hangs old pictures of himself and his fellow inmates at his new office at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, alongside Gospel sayings that help him keep his faith, all stark reminders of his time in prison.
He says he tells himself, “Keep your mind to the Lord, look where you were, look back at 1983, when the hammer came down and sentenced you to life in prison for something you didn’t do.”
In a statement, Ryan defended the initial prosecution of Rosario and the appeal of the ruling that set him free, saying he made a calculated confession that was corroborated by physical evidence produced at trial.
Lisa Kavanaugh, one of Rosario’s lawyers, the head of the Innocence Program for the state’s public defender agency, said that Rosario should be exonerated by prosecutors. His conviction was thrown out in large part because advances in forensic technology cast doubt on whether the fire was deliberately set, raising questions about the accuracy of the confession. Kavanaugh said she welcomes the high court’s review of the case, saying the court’s decision could settle Rosario’s case and others like it that have been built on questionable evidence.
“We felt the issues were important and are glad it’s before the highest court, but our wish is that Victor would be done with this and can move on with his life,” she said.
Within 48 hours of the deadly fire, the worst in Lowell history, investigators zeroed in on Rosario, 24 at the time, as their suspect. Fire inspectors reported that burn patterns in the home indicated the fire was intentionally set.
Rosario, then a drug addict and alcoholic, first told investigators he had gone to the apartment next door to buy drugs, and then smelled smoke and heard screams. But after five hours of questioning, Rosario signed a statement that he and two friends had thrown Molotov cocktails into the building as revenge for a botched drug deal. Within a year he was convicted and sentenced to multiple life terms.
An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published in the Globe in 2010, found grave shortcomings in the police inquiry, however, including in witness identification techniques. The most significant development was in advances in forensic science, which found that the burn patterns police took as definitive evidence of arson are now considered a common occurrence of any house fire, whether intentionally set or not.
The appeal filed on Rosario’s behalf also raised the question of whether he was suffering from a delirium caused by severe alcohol withdrawal and submitted to a coerced confession, a finding made by a mental health analysts who testified for the defense.
In her decision vacating the conviction, Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman ruled that the questionable evidence of arson, coupled with evidence of Rosario’s psychosis during alcohol withdrawal, raised doubts as to the veracity of his confession.
Ryan’s appeal argues that Tuttman overstepped her authority because no new evidence was presented by the defense. In the original trial, Rosario had already argued unsuccessfully that he was having a psychotic episode at the time of the confession, and prosecutors said the new diagnosis that he suffered from delirium tremens should not alter the initial decision.
Prosecutors also argued that the reputed advances in scientific evidence cited by the defense were not sufficient to overturn the verdict, saying Rosario’s confession confirmed that the fire had been arson. Materials used to make the same type of Molotov cocktails Rosario said he threw at the house were found in the basement of his apartment building after the fire.
Rosario is the only person convicted in the case; he refused to testify against the two accomplices he named during his confession, and they have since died.
In a recent interview, Rosario acknowledged his heavy alcohol and drug use at the time, and believes he would have died by now had he not been sent to prison. Rosario maintains his innocence, but says he said he would not exchange the 32 years he spent incarcerated for the 24 years before.
Before being incarcerated, “I never had a relationship with the Lord Savior Jesus Christ,” said Rosario, who is one of the first ministers ordained in the state prison system. He preaches at both Tremont Temple Baptist Church, and at a church he helped found in Dorchester, La Iglesia.
He also spends time exploring the world outside of prison — the new cars, computers, smartphones.
And he continues to run. Rosario started running while in prison — 76 laps around the track equaled a marathon. This year’s race in New York City will be his first race on the outside. He’s hoping it’s not his last.