Dennis Maher was wrongfully convicted for rape and assault in 1984 and was incarcerated for 19 years before he was exonerated.
On November 16, 1983, a 28-year-old woman was attacked as she was walking home from work in Lowell, Massachusetts. An unknown man approached her and tried to engage her in conversation before forcing her into a nearby yard, where he sexually assaulted her.
A second incident occurred the following evening, close to the site of the first assault. A 23-year-old woman walking home from work was pushed to the ground by a man wielding a knife. She successfully escaped after a struggle and notified the police. The second victim described the assailant as a man wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt and a khaki military-style jacket.
Dennis Maher, then a sergeant in the United States Army, was stopped and questioned by police on the night of the second incident based on the victim’s statement. He was wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, and a subsequent search of his vehicle turned up an army field jacket and a military issue knife. Maher was arrested and charged with both attacks, as well as an unresolved rape that occurred the previous summer in Ayer, Massachusetts. The three victims’ descriptions of the perpetrator varied, but they all identified Maher in photographic lineups.
During the Lowell trial, Maher testified that when the first incident was taking place, he was meeting with his commanding officer 20 miles away from the scene of the crime. Two fellow sergeants testified confirming Maher’s alibi. Nevertheless, the jury found Maher guilty of the Lowell attacks. In a separate trial, a separate jury found Maher guilty of the Ayer rape. Maher was sentenced to life imprisonment following the convictions. The appeals court affirmed all three convictions.
Maher continuously asserted his innocence. He was deemed to be a sexually dangerous person in prison proceedings and civilly sentenced to the Massachusetts Treatment Center. He could be released from the treatment center only if he admitted to the crimes, and he refused. Maher filed motions asking for a new trial, all of which were denied by Judge Robert Barton, who had presided over his original trials. In 1993, Maher reached out to the Innocence Project. Lawyers from the Project filed a motion for DNA testing, and that motion was denied by Judge Barton as well. In 2000, Maher’s case was transferred to the newly-formed New England Innocence Project (NEIP).
NEIP spent months trying to track down biological evidence collected from the victims. Karin Burns, a law student and NEIP intern, was repeatedly rebuffed by the clerk’s office, which said that the evidence could not be located. Finally, a sympathetic clerk discovered two boxes of evidence from the Lowell case in the basement of the Middlesex County Courthouse. The boxes contained pants and underwear collected from the first victim, the 28-year-old woman who was raped. The Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory found seminal stains on the underwear and possible blood stains on the pants.
The judge who replaced retired Judge Barton allowed NEIP’s new motion for DNA testing. Testing on the underwear produced a genetic profile that excluded Maher as the source of the seminal sample. Shortly after testing on the Lowell evidence was completed, prosecutors located a slide from the Ayer case. Testing on the Ayer evidence returned results that once again, excluded Maher as the source of semen. Furthermore, the DNA tests showed that different men raped the two women in Lowell and in Ayer.
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the DNA testing results, and joined with NEIP in filing a motion to grant Maher a new trial. The Office agreed to drop all charges against Maher.
Maher was freed on April 3, 2003, after serving 19 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Jay W. Carney, the original prosecutor, apologized to Maher with teary eyes on his day of exoneration. Retired Judge Barton however, said he owes no apology. He believed that Maher’s trials were fair since DNA testing was relatively new at the time and test results would not have been relevant evidence.
Post-release, Maher acted as an outspoken advocate for DNA-access bills and compensation bills for wrongful conviction cases in Massachusetts and in other states. He also continues to volunteer his time to the New York-based Innocence Project, by participating in public speaking, conferences, and other events.