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Pair plead guilty, get 10 years in 1994 slaying

Case from 1994 led to a wrongful conviction in '96

The case of the 1994 murder of 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan, which at first symbolized the senseless loss of young lives to urban violence and later became an example of how substandard police investigative techniques resulted in wrongful convictions, came to a conclusion yesterday, as the boy's killers pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Michael Brown, 26, and Bennie Santos, 24, admitted to hiding behind a fence in the Bromley-Heath housing development in Roxbury and firing handguns indiscriminately at a crowd of people on Halloween night 10 years ago, in retaliation for the earlier wounding of Santos's brother in a drive-by shooting.

As part of a plea bargain, each will serve a 10-year state prison sentence.

''This crime was part of a tragic chapter in our city's history," Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole said at a press conference after the hearing. ''It shattered our sense of security in our neighborhoods."

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley called the murder ''one of those crimes in the history of a city that leaves deep and lasting scars."

Goffigan, who had celebrated his 9th birthday earlier in the day, was counting his trick-or-treat candy when he was struck in the chest by a bullet. He was rushed to the hospital, calling his grandmother's nickname and still worried about his candy, relatives said. He died at 2 a.m. the next day.

''You took a lot away from his mother," Goffigan's grandmother, Dorothy Haskins, told the defendants during the hearing. ''We cry every day. It's just pain; there is no closure for us."

Haskins also told the pair to search their souls and ask for God's forgiveness, or they would ''burn in Hell . . . and I mean burn."

She also asked them to turn around and apologize to the boy's mother, Deborah Haskins, who was sitting in the second row of the courtroom, but they stared back impassively. Deborah Haskins said later that she had received an apology from Santos's brother.

In 1996, another youth, Donnell Johnson, was convicted of the murder, based mainly on what Conley yesterday called ''good-faith eyewitness testimony" from witnesses, including members of Goffigan's family.

Three years later, a federal investigation of drug trafficking in the area cast doubt on Johnson's guilt, authorities said, and pointed toward Santos and Brown. Prosecutors said Brown bore a ''striking resemblance" to Johnson. Johnson's conviction was overturned, and he was freed in 1999.

Goffigan's mother and grandmother both said the 10-year sentences were a measure of justice, but just a small one that did not match the enormity of the crime.

Prosecutors defended the plea deal as the best one possible under the circumstances, saying that a trial in the case would have been extremely difficult, because someone had been found guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Police also had no physical or scientific evidence linking Brown and Santos to the crime, and the testimony against them would have come primarily from codefendants in a federal drug case who are now cooperating with the government.

Both men have been in custody since they were indicted in the federal case in 2000. Santos pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and is serving a sentence that will make him eligible for parole in 2011. Brown is still awaiting trial.

As part of the plea deal, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Rouse ordered the manslaughter sentences for the pair to run concurrently with any federal prison time, a move that had some observers -- like Johnson's lawyer, Stephen Hrones -- charging that the two would basically serve no time for Goffigan's murder.

''The tragedy of this whole case is that because the Boston Police Department and the Suffolk district attorney's office investigated this case so poorly, the guilty parties are basically getting off scot-free," Hrones said yesterday.

Hrones said his client is doing well and is working as a manager of a Radio Shack in Mississippi while finishing a college degree.

He said he is proud of the fact that the Johnson case was the first of a large number of cases in recent years where wrongly convicted defendants were exonerated and released.

Over the last decade, according to defense lawyers, nine innocent men in Suffolk County have been freed after serving between four and 30 years in prison. Their cases prompted Beacon Hill lawmakers to pass a bill this month allowing wrongly convicted defendants to sue the state for as much as $500,000.

O'Toole said yesterday that the cases have caused her department to effect major changes in the handling of fingerprint evidence, suspect interviews, and eyewitness identifications. ''I can't say this wouldn't have happened," she said. ''But things are dramatically different now than they were then."

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