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Justice knows no borders… unfortunately, neither does injustice

Stephan Cowans

This boy did six years in the joint for nothing

Stephan Cowans

The incorrectly labeled fingerprint used to convict an innocent man in a 1997 cop shooting actually belonged to a hostage whose print should have been ruled out first, several sources told the Herald.

"The question is, how can a competent fingerprint technician make that mistake" asked James Dilday, Stephan Cowans' defense attorney. "The ID unit is shoddy. This boy did six years in the joint for nothing."

Fingerprint technicians Dennis LeBlanc and Rosemary McLaughlin have been suspended from the Boston police identification unit pending the outcome of a criminal investigation by Attorney General Tom Reilly's office.

An outraged Reilly plans to bring the case before a grand jury soon, a source said.

Reilly is also investigating Sgt. Detective Gregory Gallagher, who wrongly fingered Cowans as his shooter, and his colleague, Sgt. Detective Kevin Waggett, who arrested Cowans, a law enforcement source said.

LeBlanc was the technician who processed and matched Cowans' fingerprint to one found on a mug inside a home where the actual shooter tried to hide out after firing a bullet into Gallagher's buttocks.

The print that Dennis LeBlanc said matched Cowans actually belonged to a family member who lived inside the home that was invaded by the real shooter.

The case remains unsolved.

The Herald reported yesterday that the identification unit historically has been a dumping ground for officers accused of wrongdoing.

LeBlanc was suspended for 10 days in 1992 after he was caught drunk and without his pants along the Charles River. He did not return a call to the Herald yesterday.

"So we throw the worst of our lot into the identification unit," Dilday said. "How can someone of that ilk now be responsible for such a serious process?"

Cowans is mulling whether to file a civil suit against the city.

Boston police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole has vowed to revamp the identification and ballistics units, which she says she is trying to have certified.

"We're working very hard to resolve this issue," O'Toole said in a recent interview.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said his office is using the Boston fingerprint technicians, but is having their work double-checked by state police.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, predicts the Cowans' fingerprint fiasco is likely to open the floodgates for an extensive review of cases.

"The Cowans case is a scandal - there's no question about it," Neufeld said. "Once uncovered, you have to re-examine all the other cases. The chances are very good that you'll find other mistakes."