innocence blog

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Wrongfully convicted man calls for change

This article appeared in the Burlington, Vermont Free-Press on January 25, 2007:

Wrongfully convicted man calls for change

By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer

MONTPELIER -- Dennis Maher served 19 years, two months and 29 days in prison in Massachusetts before he finally proved he didn't commit the two rapes and one assault for which he was convicted.

Today, he drives a car with the license plate DNA 127. He's the 127th person exonerated with the help of DNA, he said.

He'd like to help free more people who were wrongly convicted of crimes, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, choking up at times as he shared his story. He urged legislators to change state laws to make it easier for such people to prove their cases. Committees in both the Senate and House are interested in legislation that would do that.

"The reason I do this is to help future exonerees," said Maher, now married, the father of two and still living in Massachusetts. "I know what it is to languish in prison with no hope."

Maher earned his freedom in 2003 with the help of the Innocence Project, a New York City-based nonprofit legal clinic, after lawyers with the group tracked down evidence from the case and discovered that Maher's DNA didn't match the evidence.

"I consigned myself to dying in prison," Maher said, "but I always had hope that DNA would exonerate me."

Maher and Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom encouraged Vermont legislators to change state law to require that crime evidence be kept forever and preserved under certain protocols, permitting inmates to seek testing after their convictions.

"If evidence was not preserved in the post-conviction DNA testing quests of Dennis Maher and the other 190 DNA exonerees, these innocent people would have had no recourse but to spend even more years in prison -- and in some cases, be executed -- for crimes they never committed," Saloom told the committee.

Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio, whose office represents inmates, said Vermont lacks a requirement to preserve evidence, with specific guidelines for how to keep the evidence in good condition.

While DNA is one piece of the puzzle in helping reverse convictions such as Maher's, other changes are needed, too, Maher said. He was convicted of three assaults based on the victims' identification, he said. In the first lineup, he said, the victim identified someone else as the perpetrator, but after that, he contended, police led the victims toward choosing him. He urged Vermont legislators to enact a law that requires a police officer not involved in the investigation to conduct the lineup to make sure victims aren't lured into drawing conclusions.

Valerio said he believes some Vermonters are being wrongly convicted, particularly with understaffed public defenders and prosecutors. He pointed to a recent case in which a judge ruled that police had coerced a confession out of a sexual assault suspect. "This is not an outside-of-Vermont issue," he said. "This is something that happens here."

Valerio recommended that legislators require police to videotape interrogations -- what he called a simple and fairly inexpensive way to guard against coercion. "I don't understand why anyone would contest the need to videotape a confession," he said.

Jane Woodruff, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, said accuracy of convictions is extremely important to police and prosecutors, but she said Vermont already has many protections in place and she worries that proposed solutions will be a huge drain on already tight resources.

"I do not think that the witness identification protocol would ever have happened here in Vermont," she said. "If it did happen initially, I can't think of any judge that would have let that through."

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will continue to take testimony on the issue next week. "I really want to pass an Innocence Project bill this year," Sears said.

Maher, who's been the subject of articles and a film since his release, said, "I had planned on spending 20 years in the military." Instead, he spent almost 20 years in prison, but he's intent on not looking back. "I don't have time to be angry," he said. "If I'm any angry person, I won't have the things I have in my life."

Contact Terri Hallenbeck at thallenb@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

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