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$500,000 could be awarded in overturned drug case

Suspect spent 4 years in prison

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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A state appeals court panel ruled yesterday that a Boston man who spent four years in prison before his drug conviction was overturned can apply for up to $500,000 in compensation from the state, even though prosecutors said he was never exonerated.

The three-member Appeals Court panel ruled that the Massachusetts Erroneous Convictions Law of 2004 was intended to benefit individuals whose convictions were set aside on grounds that “tend to establish innocence,’’ rather than based on “overwhelming exculpatory evidence.’’

Humberto Guzman’s conviction on cocaine charges was tossed out in 1994 on grounds of ineffective counsel and never reinstated, in part because two veteran Boston police detectives who had been the state’s key witnesses at trial were indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars during drug raids. The detectives, Walter F. Robinson Jr. and Kenneth Acerra, were later convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

Guzman filed a claim in 2006 for a wrongful conviction award, but Superior Court Judge Diane M. Kottmyer dismissed the civil case. She agreed with state Attorney General Martha Coakley that Guzman was ineligible for compensation. Coakley’s prosecutors had contended that in spite of the trial judge’s dismissal of Guzman’s conviction, other evidence presented at trial implicated him.

The appeals court overruled Kottmyer, saying the erroneous convictions law specifies that people are eligible if their convictions were dismissed “on grounds which tend to establish the innocence of the individual.’’

“Viewed in this way, the statute places reasonable limits on eligibility that are in keeping with the Legislature’s goal of providing a remedy for innocent persons erroneously convicted of crimes,’’ said the appellate panel. The law does not limit eligibility “to those individuals exonerated as a result of compelling or overwhelming exculpatory evidence,’’ the panel added.

Steven J. Rappaport, Guzman’s appellate lawyer, did not return calls for comment.

Guzman was convicted of two counts of cocaine trafficking and one count of conspiracy to traffic cocaine after Acerra and Robinson testified they found more than 200 grams of cocaine in a basement boiler room in a Roslindale apartment building and in a Chevrolet Citation that they said he had driven, according to the appellate panel.

With the exception of one resident of the apartment building, the two detectives were the only witnesses who linked Guzman to the locations where the police said they recovered cocaine, said the appellate panel.

The trial judge threw out the conviction because Guzman’s trial lawyer failed to call one of the customers as a witness, even though he would have testified that Guzman was not the man who sold him drugs. The lawyer did not call the witness, the appeals panel said, because the attorney had defended the customer in another case and felt he would have to withdraw as Guzman’s lawyer if the man testified.

The state dropped the case after Robinson and Acerra were indicted in the theft of $250,000 during drug raids and investigations. But after Guzman filed his civil claim, Coakley’s office contended it should be dismissed because of the trial evidence that linked him to the cocaine, such as the testimony of a resident in the apartment building about seeing Guzman in the boiler room.

Jill Butterworth, a spokeswoman for Coakley, said the office is reviewing yesterday’s decision and had no comment about a possible appeal to the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Since the Legislature passed the wrongful convictions law, 32 individuals have sought compensation, said Butterworth.

Coakley’s office, which defends the state in the civil claims, has reached settlements with 15 of the people and agreed to pay a total of more than $6.8 million, Butterworth said. The lower courts have dismissed four of the claims in addition to Guzman’s.

Another claim went to trial and resulted in a finding by a jury that the defendant was innocent, but a decision on the award is pending, said Butterworth.

Eleven other cases are pending.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a headline in yesterday’s Metro section inaccurately described a state appeals court ruling about a man who spent four years in prison before his drug conviction was overturned. The appeals court panel ruled that Humberto Guzman can apply for up to $500,000 in compensation under the state’s Erroneous Convictions Law through a civil claim in court.