Imprisoning Innocents: A Case Study

maherIn my Wrongful Convictions course Tuesday night, I met Dennis Maher, a man who spent nineteen years in prison for rapes he did not commit. His story, and that of far too many others I have learned about this semester, reflects the most heinous failures in our criminal justice system.

Not one, but a string of failures, caused this innocent man to spend the prime of his life (from 23-42 years old) in a cage. First, police detained him because he happened to be near the crime scene wearing the same color sweatshirt as the perpetrator. Then, police used suggestive photo array and line-up techniques. For example, when the victim failed to identify the picture of her attacker, the police officer pointed at Maher’s picture and told the victim that she reacted to that picture. In one of the line-ups, Maher was positioned behind a chair, different from all the other men, subtly suggesting Maher as the culprit.

The victims identified Maher.

False eye-witness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in America. When the victim points her finger and says, “He did it,” that evidence is almost irrefutable at trial. Indeed, this evidence led to Maher’s convictions despite multiple valid alibis and virtually no physical evidence against him.

Maher’s trial lawyer, who was later disbarred for life, only met with Maher once before trial, offered no defense witnesses other than Maher, failed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses on key points, and in his closing arguments misstated the time frame of Maher’s alibi (indicating that Maher could have committed the rape).

Nonetheless, in Maher’s later appeal, the judge rejected Maher’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The standard for IAC requires appellants to show “deficient” performance and “prejudice”—that the outcome of the trial would likely have been different but for the lawyer’s errors. This is a virtually insurmountable hurdle, especially in hindsight.

The failures didn’t stop there.

After spending over a decade in prison, Maher petitioned to have his DNA cross-checked with evidence from the crimes. The prosecutor opposed this request, and the judge rejected it. Maher spent more time in prison.

Eventually, with the help of the New England Innocence Project and a new lawyer, Maher obtained DNA testing and was cleared from the crimes. After nineteen years in prison, now a middle-aged man, he walked free. He now has a good job, a wife and two children and, miraculously, has managed to live without rage.


The rest of us should be outraged.

When a string of failures by all relevant parties in the criminal justice system dooms an innocent man to prison (while the true culprit remains at large), we all, regardless of our politics, should be deeply disturbed. Maher was a twenty-three-year-old soldier, without even a prior speeding ticket, who happened to be wearing a red sweatshirt. He could be anyone. He could be us.

The silver lining is that, were it not for a few dedicated individuals, Maher would still be in prison. For every cop, lawyer, judge who got it wrong in Maher’s case, there are many out there who are trying to get it right. The question is:  which kind of lawyer are we going to be?

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