Ronnie Qualls, who served 27 years of double consecutive life sentences for two 1992 murders he has always maintained he did not commit, walked out of a Boston courthouse March 10 to the cheers of his family and friends, thanks to the lawyering of the Boston College Innocence Program (BCIP).
Following a hearing in February, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine M. Roach granted an unusual joint motion to vacate Qualls’ conviction filed by BCIP and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office based on new DNA testing results tying a different man to the murders. Two weeks later, on Tuesday, she released Qualls on bail, pending the District Attorney’s dismissal of the charges.
“We are thrilled for Ronnie and appreciative that the DA’s office joined us in our quest for justice,” said Professor Charlotte Whitmore, who with Professor Sharon Beckman and student Rachel Feit ’20 was Qualls’ counsel of record in the case.
“I have been interested in the Innocence Program since I first learned about it five years ago in a college course. If you had told me then that one day—while still a student in law school—I would be part of team that helped to free an innocent man from prison after 27 years of incarceration, I would not have believed you,” said Feit, who sat at the counsel table with Qualls as court officers unshackled him. “But here I am.”
The path to Qualls’ release was a complicated one. He was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of Roosevelt “Tony” Price and his brother, Ronald “Dallas” Price in 1993, but his convictions were reversed by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997. He was convicted in a 1998 retrial and sentenced to two consecutive life-without-parole sentences, which the SJC affirmed in 2003. The trial court denied Qualls’ 2004 pro se motion for post-conviction relief, and the United States District Court denied his federal habeas corpus petition in 2006.
The only disputed issue at trial was the identity of the lone gunman who shot and killed the Price brothers. Before he died, Tony Price told three Boston Police Officers that another man, Junior Williams, shot him. Police picked up Williams less than two hours later and seized the blood-stained sweatshirt he was wearing, but let Williams go after he allegedly claimed that Qualls committed the crimes. Williams pled guilty to lesser charges and did not testify at Qualls’ trial. Police built a case against Qualls based on eyewitness identification testimony from three individuals, all of whom had criminal records and received favorable treatment from the prosecution on their own open criminal cases. The three witnesses each testified that the victims were shot at close range by a lone gunman who they each claimed was Qualls.
Serology testing done by a Boston Police Criminalist in 1992 showed the blood on Williams’ sweatshirt to be Type B, the same blood type of the Price brothers. Qualls’ trial attorney argued that that confirmed Tony’s dying declaration that Williams was the one who shot him. But because Williams also had Type B blood, the police criminalist testified that the blood on Williams’ sweatshirt could have been Williams’ own blood, for example, if he had a paper cut and wiped it on his sweatshirt.
Three years ago, Qualls’s mother, Yvette, reached out to the BCIP for help. BCIP students investigated and recommended that the program take on Qualls’ quest for freedom. At BCIP’s urging, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office joined with BCIP in a Joint Motion for Post-Conviction Forensic Testing of the blood on Williams’ sweatshirt, which Judge Roach granted in January 2019. The DNA testing results showed that, as trial counsel argued but could not prove at the time, the blood on Junior Williams’ sweatshirt was that of the victim Tony Price, corroborating Tony’s identification of Williams—not Qualls—as the man who shot him. There was no explanation or evidence at trial that could explain how the victim’s blood could have gotten on Williams’ sweatshirt other than his having been the lone gunman who shot the victims at close range.
The BCIP team’s detailed factual and legal submission to the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office’s newly created Integrity Review Unit led to the unusual joint motion to vacate Qualls’ convictions. It also led and to the court’s ruling that the new DNA evidence of Williams’ “physical proximity to one of the shooting victims would probably have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberations” requiring Qualls’ convictions to be “vacated as a matter of law.”
Amanda Savadian, a masters candidate in BC’s Graduate School of Social Work doing her clinical placement in the BCIP, worked with Qualls and social work supervisor Professor Claire Donohue to prepare a re-entry plan that also met with the court’s approval, and she is continuing to provide Qualls with social service support as he transitions to life outside prison. Beckman describes BCIP’s social work team as “critical to our mission because the state provides no immediate re-entry support or services to people released from wrongful incarceration,” an injustice Beckman and BCIP law and social work students have also been working to address through legislative advocacy.
“It is completely sobering for me to know that for almost every moment I have been in this world, Ronnie has been in prison for a crime he did not commit,” said Feit, who next year will serve as a law clerk for Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice William P. Robinson III ’75. “I am so humbled to be part of such an incredible organization and network, and to have had the opportunity to work under the supervision of Professors Beckman and Whitmore, both incredible leaders and masters of their craft. I am thrilled for Ronnie and his family and friends. He is so deserving of the opportunity to life his life as a free man, and I can’t wait to watch him do that.”
The Qualls case was second in the past year where BCIP has successfully vacated convictions of individuals wrongly convicted of murder. The other was the case of Omar Martinez, whose story was told in the Summer 2019 edition of BC Law Magazine. Read other BCIP-related magazine stories here, here, and here.
Other coverage of the Qualls case:
The Boston Globe (March 11)
The Boston Globe (earlier story)
The Boston Globe (earlier story)
Pictured at top, from left, Charlotte Whitmore, Sharon Beckman, and Claire Donohue