The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has upheld an earlier court’s decision in the case of Victor Rosario, who was originally sentenced to life in prison for a deadly 1982 fire in Lowell, MA, and who served 32 years behind bars before a judge ordered him freed on appeal pending a new trial. BC Law’s Innocence Program students, as well as BC Law alumni and faculty, have played key roles in the case. The SJC ruling means that Rosario will remain free while the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office decides whether to file for a new trial.
Rosario is represented by BC Law alumnae Andrea Peterson ’85, along with her co-counsel Lisa Kavanaugh of the CPCS Innocence Program. BC Law students and faculty have worked on the case at different stages, including Professor Charlotte Whitmore (before she joined BC Law) and three former students. This year, two current students, Eva Rasho ’18 and Eitan Davis ’17, worked with Professor and Innocence Program Director Sharon Beckman and Stephanie Hartung ’94 on an amicus brief that the BC Innocence Program filed in the SJC, in association with the New England and New-York based Innocence Projects.
“The unanimous decision by the SJC has important significance beyond this case in that it encourages trial judges reviewing motions for new trial to consider the factors associated with wrongful convictions in combination rather than in isolation,” said Beckman. “Moving forward, the question on a motion for new trial in Massachusetts is not whether any one reason alone is sufficient to vacate a conviction, but instead whether the combination of all of the factors in the case creates a substantial risk that justice was not done.”
During his 32 years in prison, Rosario got married, became a minister and a marathon runner. After his release, following a hearing co-counseled by Peterson and Kavanaugh, Rosario ran the New York Marathon and founded a ministry that connects prisoners to the outside world.
“For all intents and purposes, this should end the criminal prosecution of Victor Rosario,” said Beckman. “The Middlesex District Attorney has the authority to dismiss or retry the case, but retrial of this case would be impossible because the evidence used to convict Mr. Rosario in 1983 has been thoroughly discredited and undermined by the nation’s leading experts in arson science and false confessions.”
The opinion is also noteworthy in that the Court considered the use of interrogation techniques known to have the potential to elicit false confessions as flaws that were part of the totality of circumstances requiring a new trial, Beckman added.