Metro

After spending 32 years in prison for arson, Lowell man will remain free, SJC rules

Victor Rosario at MCI-Norfolk in 2010.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/file

Victor Rosario at MCI-Norfolk in 2010.

The state’s top court agreed Thursday that a Lowell man who spent 32 years in prison before his arson conviction was overturned can remain free while prosecutors decide whether to seek a new trial in the deadly fire that killed eight people, including five children.

Victor Rosario, 59, was released from state prison in 2014 after Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman vacated his 1983 conviction for arson and eight murders and ordered a new trial, citing advances in fire investigation techniques and questions about Rosario’s confessions to the crime. The state Supreme Judicial Court upheld that decision, agreeing Thursday that Rosario was convicted on questionable evidence.

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“This case . . . presents a situation in which a confluence of factors combined to create a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice,” Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote for the court.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan will now have to decide whether to hold a new trial for Rosario, a former drug addict who says he found a new life in and out of prison as an ordained minister. Ryan’s office said Thursday that it is still reviewing the court’s decision to determine the next appropriate steps.

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Rosario said in an interview Thursday that he has been overcome by emotions, which have been building up while he awaited the court’s decision — a decision that could have forced him to return to prison.

“Tears came down my eyes, because of all the injustices coming undone, and everything is coming together,” he said. “So many feelings and emotions coming together . . . I just wanted this case to be over, so I can continue on with my life.”

Rosario was sentenced to life in prison for the fatal 1982 fire in Lowell. He confessed to the arson after a lengthy police interrogation, signing a statement saying he and two accomplices threw Molotov cocktails at the triple-decker. Investigators had questioned Rosario after he admitted to being in the area, and told them that he broke a window in a failed rescue attempt.

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Rosario claimed before the trial that his confession had been involuntary and that he suffered from psychosis at the time. That argument was not successful. His initial appeal was rejected.

In the most recent appeal, however, new mental health experts testified that Rosario was suffering from “delirium tremens” caused by alcohol withdrawal, which would have affected his state of mind and mental capacity at the time. He had been drinking heavily just before the fire and was experiencing withdrawal at the time of the confession. The new diagnosis raised questions as to whether his confession was voluntary.

Defense attorneys also challenged the initial determination that the fire was arson and likely caused by a Molotov cocktail. Advances in arson science have cast doubt on some of the investigatory methods used at the time to determine burn patterns.

In her decision two years ago, Tuttman found that the new diagnosis of delirium tremens, combined with the advances in forensic science, raised doubt about the confession. She freed him from prison.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed that a “confluence” of factors tainted the conviction.

“These factors taken together could have influenced the jury’s verdict,” Budd wrote for the court. “Although the evidence presented in support of the defendant’s motion for a new trial does not necessarily mean that he is innocent, the judge concluded, after what was clearly a painstaking review of the trial record, that justice was not done.”

Rosario was represented by attorneys Andrea Petersen and Lisa Kavanaugh, the head of the Innocence Program for the state’s public defender agency, and they celebrated the decision.

“It was very much an affirmation of the issues we thought were of importance, not only to Victor’s case but to other post-conviction cases — the focus of whether justice was done,” Kavanaugh said.

“The court really affirmed that this is ultimately the question the court is always asking.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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