BARBARA HOWARD: After 32 years in prison, Victor Rosario is officially a free man. He will not be tried again on the murder and arson charges that put him behind bars in the first place. The case stems back to a 1982 fire in Lowell that killed eight people, including five children. Back then, investigators ruled it an arson, but the science of investigating fires has come a long way since then, and in May, the state's highest court agreed that the fire might actually have been accidental. In 2014, Rosario was freed on $25,000 bail awaiting a new trial. Then, last Friday, Middlesex County District Attorney Marion Ryan's office decided not to pursue the court case any longer.

Victor Rosario was 24 years old at the time of the fire. He's now 60. He remembers that night. He acknowledges that he and two friends were buying drugs at the house next door when the fire started.


VICTOR ROSARIO: I smelled, I smelled there was something that was burning ... I mean, I’m trying to break a window, trying to get inside the house and trying to save the people.

HOWARD: Rosario was arrested. The same investigators who ruled the fire an arson also got a confession from Rosario. Much has been written in recent years about confessions — of forced or coerced confessions. Rosario’s lawyers successfully argued that while there was a translator, their client, Rosario, was interrogated in English. And when asked to sign a document, Rosario, they say, was suffering from alcohol withdrawal and the confusion and hallucinations that can go with that.


ROSARIO: They only [gave] me a piece of paper, and for me, I was thinking that I was going home.

HOWARD: And so you signed.

ROSARIO: That's what I signed.

HOWARD: So you signed a confession.

HOWARD: In that confession, Rosario also implicated his two friends, but the case against them fell apart when Rosario refused to testify against them in court. Instead, he steadfastly proclaimed their innocence and his own.


ROSARIO: Yes. Yes, I was [an] innocent man, and I'm still [an] innocent man. 

HOWARD: And the Garcias brothers?

ROSARIO: They [were] innocent, too.

HOWARD: But Rosario has not been exonerated. Here's what the Middlesex County district attorney Marion Ryan wrote, and I quote, "In light of the court's rulings, the passage of time and its impact on the evidence, we have concluded that we cannot sustain our high burden of proof in a new trial."

But, she stopped short of actually clearing Rosario. That leaves a cloud of suspicion. Rosario was asked about that.


ROSARIO: Whosoever continues thinking about my character, about who I am  I know who I am: I’m an innocent man that did 32 years in prison for a crime that I did not commit.

HOWARD: As Rosario spent all those years in prison, many of his relatives — his parents, his uncles, and aunts — died.


ROSARIO: The hardest thing for me was the last time that I saw my mom. My mother came and said to me, ‘Son, this is the last time that I come to visit you.’ I saw it in her eyes how much she wanted me to be out, and that was the hardest thing. And I said, ‘Ma, why (sic) you say that?' A month later, my mother passed away.

HOWARD: Rosario found religion in prison. He became a pastor. It was there he met his wife, who taught a class. For the past three years, while Rosario has been awaiting a new trial, there's been a sense of dread — the possibility of getting sent back to prison.


ROSARIO: My wife [waited] for me for 22 years. In those 22 years, she is my right hand. She is the one that has [kept] me going.

HOWARD: So you you met your wife while you were in prison, and she waited for you all this time. What was it like for you when you heard that the Middlesex County District Attorney was going to not pursue this case anymore?

ROSARIO: This is, this is, this is … I don't think there [are] words that ... can describe the happiness, the joy that I and my wife, we had. It's a completely ... a burden, it's a release. It's freedom.

HOWARD: Rosario says stepping out of prison had been a real shock — the sights and the smells. After being surrounded by institutional green walls, the bright colors were jarring, the smell of perfume overwhelming. The world had changed, especially technology — he'd never even had a cell phone. But it was the internet that helped him connect with his daughter. Rosario had been a teenage father, and he says his daughter Maria was five years old when he went to prison.


ROSARIO: Finally, two weeks ago, I found her in New York. She’s with me right now.

HOWARD: She's with you, she came up to Boston?


HOWARD: How old is she now?

ROSARIO: Forty-one.

HOWARD: She's 41 years old. What does she make of this? Is she angry with you?

ROSARIO: No. She’s not judging me for anything.

HOWARD: Do you feel like you lost  you must feel like you lost a lot of time with your children?

ROSARIO: Yes, yes, yes.

HOWARD: Is that one of the worst things about it?

ROSARIO: It is, it is, it is. You can never get it back.

HOWARD: Rosario says that he and his daughter stayed up all night talking. He was asked whether all of this leaves him bitter or angry.


ROSARIO: The way I look at it ... it’s a decision that person made. I have to love, I have to forgive. And forgiveness, for me, has been one of the most biggest key (sic) to liberate not only myself, but to liberate other people. I forgive the DAs, I forgive the government. I forgive because the Lord said "Forgive them, because they don't know what they do."

HOWARD: That's Victor Rosario, imprisoned at the age of 24, now free at age 60. He and his wife now live in Brighton. Last Friday, the Middlesex County district attorney opted to drop his case.

Click here to read the story from WGBH News' partner, The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, that initially examined Rosario's case.