Saturday, December 30, 2006

What's At Stake in Commonwealth v. LaGuer

From the MetroWest Daily News:
What's at stake in Commonwealth v. LaGuer

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Next Thursday, a couple of hours before the new governor gets sworn in, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear a challenge to Benjamin LaGuer's 1984 conviction for raping his a 59-year-old neighbor.

James C. Rehnquist, son of the late chief justice, will argue that the commonwealth's failure to turn over a State Police report made the day LaGuer was arrested, showing that four fingerprints on a key piece of evidence were not his, should invalidate the verdict.

This may seem like a technicality. It isn't for two important reasons: 1) Anything that violates our constitutional guarantee to a fair trial is never a technicality. We have a presumption of innocence because every defendant might indeed be innocent. 2) A great deal of evidence, including that fingerprint report, says LaGuer did not commit the crime.

Suffolk University Law School Web casts SJC oral arguments live at

LaGuer became a signature issue in the Massachusetts governor's race when Republican Kerry Healey blanketed the airwaves with two 30-second spots trying to bring Democrat Deval Patrick down by casting LaGuer as a latter day Willie Horton. Patrick had once supported parole and then a DNA test for the inmate.

It would be a sad day if that blitz prejudices the judiciary against LaGuer. Tactics Sandra L. Hautanen, arguing for the Worcester District Attorney, deploys are shockingly dishonest and should frighten anyone who cares about the rule of law and basic fairness. She has rolled out the same playbook DA John J. Conte, whose term in office ends the day before the hearing, has used to defend the conviction for 23 years: First recite the horrendous nature of the crime (which no one disputes), and then make it look like the case against LaGuer was so overwhelming that constitutional niceties about a fair trial are irrelevant.

This tactic is designed to neither get at the truth of who committed this crime, nor ensure procedural integrity. As a result both are subverted. That is not only bad for justice, but undermines our basic values.

The unstated premise behind Hautanen's filings is that the victim's eye witness identification of LaGuer was so strong that it would be politically risky for any judge to overturn the verdict. But a careful review of the record shows that this is just not so. Aside from being kept in the dark about the exculpatory fingerprint report, the jury was unaware that the victim had a long history of mental illness. That is by no means her fault and in no way negates the fact that she was grotesquely violated. But, when taken together with indicators of LaGuer's innocence, such as the fingerprint report and that a man of similar age, height, build and ethnicity, who frequented the building and who had a known history of sexual misconduct, was ignored by the investigating detective, the victim's mental state should raise cautionary flags about the reliability of a cross racial identification that sent LaGuer to prison for life.

LaGuer could have gotten his freedom at his first parole hearing in 1998 had he admitted to the crime. He instead pursued DNA testing in an effort to prove his innocence. After a four-year process which in the end revealed significant problems with the way the evidence was handled, a test LaGuer fought hard to obtain seemed to link him to the crime. Hautanen raises this in her filings as well, even though it has no bearing on the fundamental procedural issues before the court. Worse, she doesn't acknowledge that four highly regarded DNA experts have since studied the evidence chain of custody together with the testing reports and given unambiguous written opinions that the results are unreliable.

The problems with Hautanen's filings go beyond errors of omission and contain instances of blatantly misstating the factual record. Her untruths extend to earlier blood type evidence that has been scientifically discredited, yet she perpetuates unquestionably false arguments.

A prosecutorial strategy that rests on lies, omissions and intimidation should not be tolerated by the courts or by the public. Our liberties are too precious to be sacrificed because of a residue of public opinion from a cynical and ill-informed political campaign. Kerry Healey's lunge for votes was built on and reinforced by calculated efforts by prosecutors to turn justice on its head.

As NECN's Jim Braude said on the air recently, despite the beating he took during the campaign, might Deval Patrick have gotten this one right?

Eric Goldscheider is an Amherst-based freelance journalist.

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