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.”
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.