Shawn Drumgold, a Massachusetts man who spent more than a decade behind bars for a murder he didn't commit, died after suffering an aortic aneurysm last week. Drumgold was imprisoned for 14 years in a case that exemplifies some of the issues surrounding wrongful conviction and the challenges exonerated people face when they leave prison. GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed joined Morning Edition host Jeremy Siegel to talk about how wrongful convictions happen and what life is like for the exonerated. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeremy Siegel: Let's go back to the 1980s to start. Tell us about the incident that led to Shawn Drumgold's murder conviction in the first place.

Daniel Medwed: On Aug. 19, 1988, a 12-year-old girl named Tiffany Moore was shot and killed while sitting on a mailbox in Roxbury. The police's theory was that she was an innocent bystander, caught in the crossfire of a dispute between some rival gangs. Shawn Drumgold and another man named Terrence Taylor emerged as suspects when they were identified as carrying guns several blocks away from the crime scene.

Only one eyewitness, however, could put Drumgold at the scene, and that witness later failed to identify him from a photo lineup. Drumgold's position all along was yes, he was in Roxbury at the time, but he wasn't involved in the shooting. He wasn't even there. A friend corroborated his account, gave him an alibi. Nevertheless, the case went to trial. And as you pointed out, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Incidentally, Taylor was acquitted.

"He wasn't even there. A friend corroborated his account, gave him an alibi. Nevertheless, the case went to trial."
-GBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed

Siegel: I know it's really hard to prove that someone is innocent after a trial like that. How did Drumgold end up being exonerated here?

Medwed: Massachusetts has a very significant post-conviction remedy. It's known as Rule 30B of our Rules of Criminal Procedure, and it allows a judge to vacate, to overturn a conviction, if it can be shown that "justice may not have been done in the case." And the typical way, or at least one common way, of proving this is to accumulate newly discovered evidence — evidence that wasn't available at the time of trial that casts doubt on the integrity of the conviction.

So in the Drumgold case, it was through the dedicated work of a fantastic criminal defense lawyer here in Boston — Rosemary Scapicchio, who's been involved in a number of these cases — and the investigative journalism at The Boston Globe that unearthed some new evidence that pointed to Drumgold's innocence. Specifically, it was evidence that the prosecution failed to turn over information to the defense that it was constitutionally required to disclose.

In short, there's a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, a famous case called Brady v. Maryland, which mandates that the government must disclose all exculpatory evidence to the defense. That means anything that's favorable to the accused or material consequential to the issue of guilt or innocence.

In this case, the government failed to turn over information that the main eyewitness, the only one who could put Drumgold at the crime scene, was suffering from a malignant form of brain cancer that may have affected her perception of the incident. There was also evidence that another key prosecution witness had a slate of criminal charges pending that were mysteriously dismissed in the aftermath of his testimony, suggesting it may have been a quid pro quo.

There was also evidence that the police may have intimidated some witnesses, friends of Drumgold, into not coming forward. Long story short, in 2003, a judge vacated, or overturned, Drumgold's conviction on the grounds that justice may not have been done.

"There was also evidence that the police may have intimidated some witnesses, friends of Drumgold, into not coming forward."
-GBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed

Siegel: Did Drumgold ever sue the police or prosecutors for this? I mean, 14 years in prison is a really long time. I can't really imagine how you could even be compensated for being wrongfully convicted and spending that time behind bars. Did he sue?

Medwed: He did, Jeremy. And like many states, Massachusetts has a very specific compensatory regime for wrongful convictions. But there are caps or restrictions on the size of your damage award, as in many states. Drumgold only recovered $500,000 from Massachusetts, which might seem like a lot in the abstract, but as you point out, not for 14 years of wrongful imprisonment in miserable Massachusetts state penitentiaries. So Drumgold set his sights on federal court and filed a federal civil rights action. A jury came back and awarded him $14 million on the grounds that the police had violated his constitutional rights. That award was overturned on appeal, and ultimately Drumgold settled with the city of Boston for $5 million.

Siegel: This is one of many wrongful convictions that have happened in the United States. How does this compare to other documented cases?

Medwed: It has many of the hallmarks of other wrongful convictions. Scholars have identified about 3,200 documented wrongful convictions since 1989. And what we've tried to do is deconstruct what went wrong in these cases, what led to these miscarriages of justice, with the aim of pinpointing the flaws, the weak points in the system, and maybe reforming them.

So first and foremost, as in the Drumgold case, eyewitness misidentification is the number one contributor to these cases. It appears in about 70% of documented wrongful convictions. Second, again, as in the Drumgold case, official misconduct by the police or prosecutors, often but not always in the form of a Brady violation — the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence — appears time and time again in wrongful convictions.

Siegel: What was Drumgold's life like in the aftermath of his exoneration? I imagine going back to society after 14 years of being wrongfully convicted, that must be really difficult. What did those years look like?

Medwed: Undoubtedly, they were very hard. By all accounts, he led a productive, quiet and unassuming life with his longtime partner. Most recently, they lived in Bridgewater. But many exonerees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as you can imagine. And I know a number of exonerees who even carry the court decision around with them on their person that proves their innocence, just in case they encounter a skeptic on the street and they have to show proof, physical proof, of their innocence.

I have a former client from New York who was wrongfully convicted of robbery back in 1999, who told me recently that he always uses his debit card to make a purchase, no matter the size of the purchase, because it supplies him with an alibi in case the police come looking for him to tack him for a crime that he didn't commit. It's often incredibly challenging for the exonerated.