By WGBH News | Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Nov. 30, 2011
BOSTON — Former Mass. Speaker Sal DiMasi started his new life in federal prison on Nov. 30. But what kind of life will it be? WGBH News has been looking into what could be DiMasi's home for the next eight years: the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky.
DiMasi is among 2,200 inmates living in a low-security, dormitory-style environment with often four to eight people in a room. There are no cells or bars and not even many guards: just one officer is assigned to every unit.
In his first days he’ll be oriented and assigned to a case manager who will choose DiMasi’s unit and find a daytime job for him, former federal prosecutor Mark Wohlander told WGBH News’ Jordan Weinstein.
All the inmates have the same routine. DiMasi’s day at his assigned job will start at 7:30 a.m., but not with a power breakfast — the meal ends before the workday starts. Work ends at about 3:30 p.m. At night, it's dinner, relaxation, recreation and perhaps a counseling or education program. Lights go out at 11:00 p.m., later on weekends and holidays.
The prison's public information officer Rose Harless said that twice a day, at 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., DiMasi will stand beside his bed for what's called a "stand-up count," when every inmate is counted. Officers check three more times overnight to make sure every inmate is in his bed and alive.
Although DiMasi will mix with mainly low-security inmates, his home is a medical center first and foremost and it also houses high-security inmates with medical conditions. Before becoming a prison, the facility was called the US Narcotics Farm — and it’s where stars such as Billie Holiday, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims came to get clean. The facility is profiled in a book and documentary film.
Why is he there? Wohlander didn’t have access to DiMasi’s records but said the Bureau of Prisons must have identified a medical issue, either physical or psychiatric, that could best be treated at a prison that was also a hospital.
Wohlander added, “The facility’s got a great reputation… it’s one that a lot of people seek to get to.”
In his free time, DiMasi can watch cable TV but only in a shared, central area. He'll have no cell phone or personal computer; to call or email, he must use a prison device. His mail will be screened and visitors will go through a metal detector.
Still, the prison is in the middle of horse country, and though DiMasi won’t likely be galloping through the trees, “The facility’s beautiful,” Wohlander said. “Very candidly, unless you saw the sign out front and then saw the fencing out in front of it you would never think that would be part of the Bureau of Prisons.”
By Phillip Martin | Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Nov. 22, 2011
Massachusetts legislators are considering a bill that would allow inmates access to DNA evidence that was critical to their convictions. Though the legislation is supported by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the state crime lab and many police departments, it is not clear that it will be passed by the spring deadline. Advocates say it can help free the innocent. Opponents believe the bill might serve to assist the guilty. Read the first part of this report.
BOSTON — It was during her second year at Roger Williams Law School in Rhode Island that Betty Ann Waters first heard about DNA.
“It’s such a fabulous tool. It’s a miracle!” she said.
Waters was convinced it would prove to be the key to unlocking the cell that had been her brother’s home for 18 years. Kenny Waters had been convicted of murdering Katharina Brow, a mother of two in the town of Ayers in 1980, and sentenced to life without parole.
Years later, Betty Anne Waters became her brother’s attorney. She gained access to a blue-green window curtain from the victim’s home. Prosecutors said it was splattered with the killer’s blood. So Waters had it tested for DNA evidence.
It turned out the blood was not her brother’s.
A second key piece of evidence was missing from the original trial that Waters says could have influenced the outcome in her brother’s favor. Fingerprints were left behind at the murder scene.
“Not only were they fingerprints involved, they were bloody fingerprints that were only discovered two years ago,” says Waters. “The person that lifted them was a state police officer who lifted the prints at the scene and retired two weeks before Kenny was arrested and took them home with him. And it’s not a case isolated. There are so many cases like it.”
Hopes for DNA — and exoneration
David Siegel, the co-director of the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England Law School,says that DNA can make or break a case. Siegel co-drafted the original state legislation in 2003 that would have provided inmates access to critical DNA evidence.
“In a case involving violence, homicide or a sexual assault, when someone leaves biological material, whether it’s blood, saliva, skin tissue — those things have DNA that can be extracted from them and that can exclude or include a particular person to a very, very high degree of accuracy,” he said.
Tyrone Dixon is staking the remainder of his life on it. Dixon is an inmate at MCI Norfolk. Nearly 20 years ago, he was convicted of killing a man in Taunton. He’s relying on a baseball cap left at the scene to set him free for a crime he says he did not commit.
“Because it’ll show that my DNA is not on the hat. And that was one of the key figures of evidence, back then they didn’t have DNA,” he said. “I always try to fight for my freedom. I always maintain my innocence.”
An argument: easier access, or no?
DNA testing has become the tool of choice for many justice rights organizations. Gretchen Bennett, the director of the New England Innocence Project, is pushing hard to enact stalled legislation in Massachusetts that would both mandate the preservation of DNA evidence and allow inmates’ lawyers access to that evidence. Attorney General Martha Coakley supports the bill, as does a long list of law enforcers statewide.
So why is it that Massachusetts to this day does not have a post-conviction DNA law that would allow potentially innocent people in prison to contest their convictions? Bennett offers a theory.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “No one I speak to actually says ‘I’m opposed to that.’ I think the opposition could only come from people who don’t understand what it is we are trying to do and who are still suffering some misapprehension that this is a bill that lets people out of prison.”
A victims' advocate weighs in
That’s exactly how Wendy Murphy feels. She says the entire public conversation has excluded the voices of the victims. Murphy, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, now lectures at New England Law School, where she specializes in sex crimes. She argues that the growing emphasis on DNA as a means to assist the wrongly convicted puts an added burden on victims.
“We already have a problem in not enough sex crimes are reported or handled fairly by juries. So the last thing we need is to undermine fair expectancies from jurors,” Murphy tells WGBH News. “That’s what I hate about this argument that DNA is some kind of great pill that will release the truth to all of us. It almost never does. It distorts the truth to the disadvantage of victimized women and children. “
Bennett rejects this argument.
“I’m actually very close friends with one particular woman who was a victim of a terrible, terrible sexual assault.” Bennett says the woman accidentally misidentified her attacker, “who was later proved not to be the actual assailant through DNA testing and they did in fact identify the real assailant. And she breaks down in tears when she talks about the fact that the evidence in that case was three days away from being destroyed, and she says all the time that the real assailant would have been out on the street forever, free to commit as many more crimes as he wanted.”
Bennett argues that everyone loses when the wrong person sits in prison and the actual rapist or murderer is out on the street committing more crimes. Lawyer Betty Ann Waters agrees and says she laments that access to DNA was not available in 1980 when her brother was investigated originally. “They would have tested the blood at the scene and they absolutely would not have arrested my brother,” she says.
In 2002, Waters helped pass a DNA statute in Rhode Island, where she lives. She is now campaigning on behalf of the Innocence Project for passage of the Massachusetts bill. Her brother was freed in June 2001, 18 years after being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. He died six months later in an accidental fall. The actual murderer who stabbed Katharina Brow 30 times has never been found.
WGBH’s two-part report on post-conviction DNA access was produced in cooperation with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
By Phillip Martin | Monday, November 21, 2011
Nov. 21, 2011
In Massachusetts over the past two decades, eight people have been released from prison after serving time for crimes they did not commit. DNA tests proved their innocence. But access to DNA evidence after a conviction is a more difficult process for inmates in Mass. than for inmates in 48 other states. A report in the Boston Globe Magazine by the Schuster Center for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University examined why. Now WGBH News questions whether DNA evidence could help another man serving life in Massachusetts.
BOSTON — On September 29, 1992, Tyrone Dixon of Albany, N.Y., was visiting his family in Taunton, Mass., when an off-duty cop heard a loud noise and sprinted over to the scene of a car accident not far from the DeWert housing project, where Dixon spent time. According to the police report, Jeffrey Poissant, the driver of a red Chevy Beretta wrapped around a pole, was slumped over the wheel with two bullets in his chest. He later died.
Police found bags of marijuana in the car, three different types of head hair and a baseball cap. Police also found witnesses who said that Tyrone Dixon was the shooter. But other witnesses said that Dixon was not in the car or in the area of the shooting that night.
“At first, I’m like ‘Well, once I go to the police station and iron this out, I’ll be out,’” said Dixon, sitting in the visitor room of MCI-Norfolk. “Speaking to my lawyer back then, he was like, ‘Don’t worry. When everything comes out you’ll beat this,’ because it wasn’t me, first of all. And I just knew how the trial was going… and there was no way they could convict me with all the evidence and all the witnesses and everything that transpired.”
Dixon was 18 when he was convicted. He is 38 today and serving life.
“The eyewitnesses who placed him at the scene of the crime, many of them have changed their stories and have recanted… and so that’s why he’s trying to seek the DNA evidence,” said Michael Blanding of the Schuster Center for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Blanding co-authored the Nov. 20 Boston Globe story on DNA along with Lindsay Markel, the center’s assistant director.
How to access the evidence?
Blanding pointed out that Massachusetts actually has very liberal laws for inmates to request new trials. “But,” he said, “in order to do that they have to present some kind of new evidence that shows that justice wasn’t done in the original trial.”
And thus the conundrum: Without access to DNA evidence, it’s hard to demonstrate possible miscarriages of justice. Yet today, Massachusetts remains one of two states that do not grant inmates access to DNA evidence after they have been convicted. Oklahoma is the other. Blanding called it a catch-22.
According to Dixon’s current attorney, Claudia Bolgen, the local district attorney’s office lost some hairs that were on the baseball hat in the car. “But the hat itself does exist,” said Blanding. “And with the technology that exists at present they can actually take DNA… off a sweatband of a hat and get a reliable sample that way.”
Since the establishment, in 1989, of DNA as a tool to ascertain guilt or innocence, 280 inmates around the country — including 17 on death row — have been exonerated.
A story of exoneration
One story of innocence proven using DNA was so compelling that Hollywood turned it into a 2010 movie called “Conviction.” It concerned a Massachusetts man named Kenneth Waters, who was convicted of a vicious 1980 homicide in the town of Ayer, Mass. The movie focused on his unlikely path to freedom with help from his sister, a high school dropout–turned-lawyer named Betty Ann Waters.
In the movie, the sister was played by actress Hillary Swank. In a 16th-floor conference room with a panoramic view of downtown Boston, the real Betty Ann Waters recalled the legal nightmare that began with the murder of a young woman in 1980.
“My brother was questioned at that time because he had a criminal background. And they let him go. He was cleared. They knew where he was at the time of the murder,” she said. “Two and a half years later while the case had gone cold, my brother gets a knock on the door and he was arrested for the murder.”
Circumstantial evidence determined Kenneth Waters’ guilt, according to the trial transcripts. His sister explained why the prosecution believed they had connected the dots.
“There was blood at the scene, type O-positive, and my brother Kenny was type O-positive and back then they didn’t have DNA testing,” she said. “So without having fingerprints or anything else, and just type O-positive and the statement of an ex-girlfriend saying he said he did it, my brother was convicted.”
Then she discovered what she called the miracle of science. “I heard the word ‘DNA’ being thrown around while I was in law school and I learned all about the Innocence Project and other people like my brother.”
That list of people like her brother includes some inmates in Massachusetts prisons. According to the New England Innocence Project and the Schuster Center for Investigative Reporting, some may be in sitting in prison for crimes they did not commit — claims that could be proven or disproven by DNA.
Phillip Martin’s report on DNA post-conviction was produced in cooperation with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Florence Graves, the center’s director, explained why they are focusing on cases of potential wrongful convictions in the Commonwealth:
“We are really looking for the truth. We are not working on any case where the evidence seems to indicate that the person is in fact guilty. And [if] at any point in that process we turn up information that suggests that, we will not continue working on that case. The vast majority of cases, we are told, have no DNA to test. So we are really only seeing through these DNA exonerations a very tiny percentage of potential cases of wrongful conviction.”
By Phillip Martin | Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The October 2010 shooting death of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr., the Pace University football player from Easton, Massachusetts, has continued to stir controversy on a number of levels that go well beyond this single incident.
As part of his ongoing coverage, WGBH News' Phillip Martin explored those issues in a special four-part series, DJ Henry and the Training of Police, that won a 2011 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. You can read and hear all Martin's stories on the subject via the timeline on this page.
> > READ: The complete story lineup
Who was DJ Henry? And who was Aaron Hess, the former U.S. Marine who was on duty with the Pleasantville police force that night? Henry's best friend remembers October 17 and the events that brought the football player and policeman together — with fatal results. Read Part 1.
The Emily Rooney Show: A Family Still Searches for Answers, Justice
Hip-hop stars Kanye West and Jay-Z considered DJ Henry's case an example of another black man dying young of violent causes. They dedicated this song, from their 2011 album "Watch The Throne," to Henry.
A grand jury did not proceed with a case against Officer Aaron Hess. But some continued to question the role of race in Henry's death — especially after a retired MBTA worker named Eurie Stamps was shot by a Framingham police officer in January 2011. Read Part 2.
The Callie Crossley Show: DJ Henry, Race and Police
Some police experts say the force needs to train officers to de-escalate conflicts and increase sensitivity to racial stereotypes. The six-month training program for new Massachusetts police was created to prevent the kind of situations that may have led to the deaths of DJ Henry and Eurie Stamps. Read Part 3.
After the end of the local criminal investigation, the Henry family asked the federal Department of Justice to conduct a civil rights review. We follow up on the tributes, the lawsuits and the lives that were forever changed. Read Coda.