Faced with allegations that two informants under the supervision of the Lowell police planted evidence on suspects, the Middlesex and Essex district attorney’s offices reached a troubling conclusion: Seventeen cases needed to be dismissed and two convictions vacated because of serious doubts about the informants’ actions, but there wasn’t enough evidence to build a case against the informants. For their part, the police did nothing wrong, the prosecutors determined.
It’s hard to imagine a more troubling violation of criminal justice than planting evidence on suspects, and the sheer number of cases raises questions about what the police knew, and how procedures could go so badly awry. Rather than perform its own investigation, however, the Lowell police chose to regard the DAs’ probe, which only covered two years’ worth of cases, as a full vindication. The department put out a statement saying it followed national “best practices” in dealing with informants. It, and the DAs’ offices, owe the public a much fuller accounting of what was, at minimum, a very serious lapse.
Questions about the cases brought by the Lowell police were first raised in 2012, when one of the informants used by the department’s Special Investigations Section allegedly approached members of the State Police and offered to plant incriminating evidence on suspects. Because Middlesex prosecutors work closely with Lowell police, former Middlesex DA Gerard Leone referred the matter to his counterpart in Essex County. In August, Essex investigators found no wrongdoing on the part of the Special Investigations Section, but nonetheless recommended dismissing the 17 cases and vacating the two convictions that involved the informants.
On Sept. 3, Lowell resident Jonathan Santiago filed a civil rights complaint against the city and detective Thomas Lafferty, claiming he was set up for cocaine possession. According to the complaint, one of the informants planted drugs inside the gas cap compartment of Santiago’s car. The complaint also alleges that Lafferty knew of the setup and failed to disclose the use of the informant in his police report. Two additional cases were filed on Sept. 19 on behalf of criminal defendants named Titus Kuria and Nel Sothy, who make similar claims. The Lowell city attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment, but Lafferty’s attorney, Douglas Louison, said that the detective had no knowledge of the informant’s activities. A spokesman for the Lowell police said the department is not conducting an internal investigation, but would do so if incriminating evidence comes to light.
The police and the DAs need to spell out exactly what happened. The DAs’ statement declared that the police did not know of the informants’ conduct, but does that mean all procedures were followed? The same procedures require that officers arrest informants found to be engaging in illegal activities. All three suits allege that at least one of the informants was a known drug dealer, and that Lowell police did nothing to curb his activities. Moreover, both the Santiago lawsuit and a prominent Lowell attorney allege that police have used one of the informants to build cases since at least 2003. The DAs’ investigation only went back to 2010 because, a law-enforcement source told the Globe, records before 2010 could not be located.
This raises the uncomfortable possibility that more people are serving sentences for convictions based on planted evidence. The people of Lowell deserve a more thorough investigation and a more complete explanation of how justice went so badly awry.