Guilty plea due in wrongful conviction

Case cited in drive for new DNA law

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / July 20, 2011

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Anthony Powell’s long and painful road to redemption will have another chapter closed this afternoon when the man accused of committing the crime for which Powell wrongly spent a dozen years in prison is expected to plead guilty in Suffolk Superior Court.

Powell was convicted in 1992 of raping a woman in Roxbury the previous year. After DNA testing proved his innocence, he was exonerated and released from prison in 2004. He is 40 now.

The DNA test that cleared him led police to Jerry Dixon, 38, of Nashua. He pleaded not guilty in 2008 to the Roxbury rape, plus charges in two 1991 rapes based on the DNA evidence.

“When you convict the wrong person, the real criminal remains on the street committing crimes,’’ said Howard Friedman, a civil rights lawyer representing Powell. “More women were raped.’’

Dixon’s lawyer, Veronica J. White, confirmed yesterday in a phone interview that her client would plead guilty today to a number of charges, including aggravated rape.

Powell maintained his innocence during his trial and incarceration, but Massachusetts makes it difficult for convicts attempting to prove they had not committed the crime.

“If you think that an innocent person cannot be convicted of a crime in Massachusetts, you are fooling yourself; it happened to me,’’ Powell said in a statement. “There are innocent people in prison . . . right now.’’

Massachusetts and Oklahoma are the only states without laws to provide convicts with access to DNA evidence and testing that could prove their innocence, and Massachusetts is the only state that does not require preservation of DNA evidence for future testing, said Gretchen Bennett, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal aid.

“We’re dead last in these issues,’’ Bennett said in a phone interview. “In this case, it was just luck that the evidence still existed, and eventually a number of people and lawyers working together were able to find the evidence and get access to it. This led to Anthony’s exoneration and the identification of the real perpetrator, who had gone on to commit more rapes while Anthony was in prison.’’

Postconviction DNA testing has exonerated 272 people nationwide, including nine in Massachusetts, Bennett said, since testing began in the late 1980s. The average amount of time an innocent person had spent behind bars was 12 years.

Bennett hopes Powell’s case will call attention to a bill to be debated soon in the State House.

The bill, sponsored by state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat, and state Representative John V. Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, would require the state to maintain DNA evidence and give convicts easier access to DNA testing that could prove their innocence.

Similar measures have failed to pass for the past 10 years, Bennett said. This time, the bill’s language was written by the Boston Bar Association with input from a task force of retired judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists, and law enforcement officials including Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said last night that Conley “supports inmate access to postconviction testing and routinely assents to it because it’s the right thing to do. The Innocence Project has said our policies in Suffolk County put us at the nation’s forefront in preventing wrongful convictions.’’

Bennett and other advocates hope that the consensus reached by the task force will help push the bill through the Legislature.

Dixon’s lawyer, White, also urged passage of the bill.

“I can only hope that my client’s anticipated guilty plea will bring some closure to the victims that have suffered greatly for so many years and to Anthony Powell,’’ White said. “. . . I can only hope that the Legislature will come to realize that more safeguards must be put in place to protect defendants from wrongful prosecutions like this one, so that people like Anthony Powell do not have to wait 12 years for justice.’’

Today, Powell is trying to live a normal life. The Innocence Project has helped him earn a GED and take courses in engineering. In 2009, he settled a civil suit against Boston and members of the Police Department for an undisclosed sum, Friedman said.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globe_guilfoil.