Massachusetts’ highest court on January 12 vacated Elvio Marrero’s first degree murder conviction in connection with the fatal stabbing of a Greenfield man in 1994, holding that new DNA eliminates the key evidence the prosecution used to convict him and casting serious doubt on the justice of his conviction.
Marrero is the eighth Boston College Innocence Program (BCIP) client whose wrongful conviction has been overturned since 2019. He is represented by BCIP Staff Attorneys Lauren Jacobs ’19 and Charlotte Whitmore, BCIP Director Sharon Beckman, BCIP clinic students working under their supervision since 2015, and co-counsel Ira Gant, director of forensic services for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS).
Marrero has always maintained his innocence, but the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed his conviction in 1998, and his initial efforts to obtain DNA testing of physical evidence and for post-conviction relief were unsuccessful. CPCS and BCIP began a joint investigation of Marrero’s case in 2015. Two years later, the Franklin County Superior Court granted their motion for DNA testing, the results of which led to Marrero’s victory in the SJC.
At Marrero’s 1996 trial, the prosecutor argued that blood stains on the sleeves of Marrero’s jacket belonged to the stabbing victim, tying Marrero to the crime. The prosecutor then argued that the blood-stained jacket corroborated the testimony of a prosecution witness who claimed to have seen Marrero wearing the jacket with blood on his hands around the time of the killing.
The path to vacating Marrero’s wrongful conviction was not an easy one.
However, the 2018 DNA test results obtained by BCIP and CPCS excluded the victim’s DNA from the blood stains on the jacket and excluded Marrero’s DNA from evidence at the crime scene. In its ruling vacating Marrero’s conviction, the SJC reasoned that these DNA results negated the only physical evidence directly implicating Marrero in the crime, which the prosecution had used at trial to bolster the testimony of a witness who “suffered from credibility issues.” The Court held that “[w]here the bloodstained jacket was the most important piece of physical evidence offered to connect the defendant to the crime, and where the prosecutor further used the jacket to corroborate the most important testimonial evidence—evidence given by a witness with credibility issues—we conclude that the bloodstains likely were a real factor in the jury’s deliberations.”
The path to vacating Marrero’s wrongful conviction was not an easy one. In April 2020, twenty-four years after his conviction, BCIP and CPCS filed a motion on his behalf for postconviction relief based on the 2018 DNA testing results. Marrero’s legal team also moved for discovery of prosecution files relating to the police investigation of the case. The court-ordered production by the Northwestern District Attorney’s office revealed previously undisclosed police records bolstering Marrero’s alibi defense.
At his 1996 trial, Marrero introduced testimony and documentary evidence from American Airlines showing that he could not have been in Massachusetts at the time the prosecution witnesses claimed he was, because he was on a morning flight to the Dominican Republic. This evidence showed that at 5 a.m. the morning of the crime, “E. Marrero” checked in at JFK airport and subsequently boarded a 7 a.m. flight to the Dominican Republic. The trial prosecutor, who admitted that the American Airlines evidence was a “gut punch” to the prosecution’s case, responded by putting on a witness who testified that there were “twenty-six other E. Marreros living in New York where the plane departed,” and urging the jury to find that the E. Marrero on the flight could have been one of them.
However, the Northwest District Attorney’s Office disclosed for the first time in 2020, pursuant to the post-conviction discovery order, that the records include police notes showing that at the time of the trial, the police had found evidence connecting Marrero to the E. Marrero on the American Airlines flight to the Dominican Republic. Specifically, police discovered that the reservation for E. Marrero was made by a travel agency in Holyoke, Massachusetts—the same agency Marrero lived near and patronized multiple times in the past. Police also learned the name and contact information for the Holyoke travel agent who had booked Marrero’s flight reservation.
BCIP and CPCS presented this newly available evidence of Marrero’s innocence in evidentiary hearings in the Franklin County Superior Court in 2021 and 2022. Despite finding that the new DNA results and previously undisclosed police notes supported Marrero’s innocence, the Superior Court judge denied Marrero relief.
“Mr. Marrero has been behind bars for nearly three decades for a crime he did not commit. The court’s decision is a necessary step in both clearing his name and securing his freedom.”Ira Gant, director of forensic services for the Committee for Public Counsel Services
BCIP and CPCS successfully petitioned the SJC for appellate review and filed briefs asking the SJC to reverse the lower court’s ruling. The Massachusetts Bar Association, the New England Innocence Project, and the ACLU of Massachusetts also filed briefs urging the SJC to vacate Marrero’s conviction. At the October 4 oral argument before the SJC, Associate Justice Scott Kafker said, “When we combine the evidence on the blood with the fact that this guy’s passport is on the plane, [doesn’t that] make this a do-over? I’m not used to this much—you know, I’ve been doing this a long time. This is alot of evidence that raises questions about whether we’ve got the right guy here.”
The SJC ruled that the exculpatory DNA evidence alone required a new trial, making it unnecessary for the court to address the additional grounds for postconviction relief raised by BCIP, CPCS, and amici.
Hailing the SJC’s ruling, attorney Gant stated, “Mr. Marrero has been behind bars for nearly three decades for a crime he did not commit. The Court’s decision is a necessary step in both clearing his name and securing his freedom.”
Marrero’s fight for freedom is not over. He remains imprisoned while the Northwestern District Attorney’s office decides whether to dismiss the case or to subject Marrero to a retrial. In the coming weeks, Marrero’s law and social work team will seek his release from prison and support his transition home. Marrero has a large family to return to, including his children, grandchildren, and siblings.
Jacobs, a former BCIP student, began representing Marrero during her year-long BC Law Post-Graduate Public Interest Fellowship at the CPCS Innocence Program, and she continued as his attorney when she rejoined BCIP as a grant-funded staff attorney in 2020. Last Spring, she was recognized with BC Law’s Recent Graduate Award for her work with BCIP exonerating innocent clients. Jacobs said she was “honored to have represented Mr. Marrero, and hopeful that he will soon regain his freedom after decades of wrongful incarceration. BCIP, CPCS, and Mr. Marrero’s loving family will be there to support him as he rebuilds his life.”
“Working on Elvio’s case and meeting with him in prison, I was sure of his factual innocence; but I never would have guessed that it would take the legal system eight more years to correct this injustice.”Lydia Bugli ’16, who worked on Marrero’s case while she was a BC Law student
The BCIP team working on Marrero’s behalf also included law students Lydia Bugli ’16, Kristen Friedman ’17, Gal Yurman Nir, LLM ’17, Hannah Reisinger ’21, Danielle Dillon ’21, and Shane Etchechury ’24. The team worked thousands of pro bono hours investigating and litigating Marrero’s innocence case.
Bugli, now in private practice, was one of the first BCIP clinic students to work on Marrero’s case. She experienced “chills” and “tears” upon learning of the ruling vacating his conviction. “Working on Elvio’s case and meeting with him in prison, I was sure of his factual innocence; but I never would have guessed that it would take the legal system eight more years to correct this injustice. During that time, I graduated from law school, advanced in my legal career, and had three children. While my life moved forward, Elvio’s stood still, just as it had for the twenty years before I met him. But I never stopped thinking about him. His case is a heartbreaking illustration of the harm of wrongful conviction.” Bugli added that the “BC Innocence Program has a special place in my heart. While representing Elvio, I learned client counseling, investigation, problem solving, and other critical skills that I use in my law practice today.”
Etchecury, who worked on Elvio’s successful appeal to the SJC, described his experience with BCIP as “the highlight of my law school experience.” He added, “I am beyond thrilled for Elvio and grateful to have been part of the team that secured justice for him after twenty-eight years of wrongful imprisonment.”
BC Law Professor Sharon Beckman explained that the “extraordinary experience our students have had working on Elvio’s case is possible because of a federal grant-funded collaboration between BCIP and CPCS to investigate and litigate claims of factual innocence in Massachusetts. We are grateful for this unique partnership with CPCS and for the grant and donor gifts that support our innocence clinic. Most of all, we are grateful to Elvio for giving us the privilege of representing him in his quest for justice.”