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DENNIS MAHER'S JOURNEY | FREEDOM DAYS

19 years later, innocence comes home

Dennis Maher sat quietly at the folding table in the cramped conference room, staring at a job application. He'd come looking for work in a new red T-shirt, new blue jeans, and the shiny white sneakers he bought for $24.99 at the Pheasant Lane Mall in New Hampshire.

The jeans look hasn't varied since he got home from prison. And buying sneakers was the first thing on his mind after peeling off the suit and stiff shoes he'd worn in court. So off he went to the mall with his brother John, who practically apologized for parking a football field from the store.

``You mind walking?'' his brother had asked, and Dennis gave him a look. ``I walked in circles.'' His voice was deadpan, and it took his brother a moment to get the point: Considering where Dennis had come from, navigating an open sea of cars wasn't an inconvenience. It was a gift.

As he pondered his latest job prospect, Maher wasn't worried about selling his skills as a mechanic, rusty as they were. What worried him was the background check. He came to the table from a place alien to most of us - from 19 years behind bars for crimes, it turns out, he did not commit.

He's DNADennis127 now, the user name he took when he began seeking work online. DNA testing freed him this spring from a life term for rapes. His was the 127th exoneration won by the New York-based Innocence Project.

He's lost nearly two decades: He went in at 23 and came out in April at 42. In the months since, he's done the media star turn that comes with being an exoneree. He's also gotten used to sleeping on the fold-out couch in the spare room in his family's small house in ``the Acre,'' a Lowell neighborhood that is one of the poorest in Massachusetts. He's gone fishing, bet on horses, and even been kissed.

Thoughout, he has amazed his lawyers and his friends, but never himself, with his equilibrium and an uncanny lack of bitterness. It's something he learned in prison: Anger is a distraction, regret a waste of time.

Either could have crushed him during his prison years. And either, he knows, could derail him still as he methodically reassembles the pieces of his interrupted life and tries to survive what many exonerees have not - the mind-rattling jolt of freedom.

This is the challenge the state that wrongly convicted him has left him, like many inmates whose time is up, to tackle on his own - without money or counseling or even a follow-up phone call.

Maher can handle that. He has been chasing job leads in his quiet, steady way. Work defines him. He keeps a pay stub folded in his wallet - his last from the Army. It shows Sergeant Dennis Maher netted $267 for the pay period ending Nov. 1, 1983.

And work has helped save him. In prison, as head cook in the staff grill, it was how he defeated time. ``Work gets me back into life,'' Maher likes to say.

So he applied to a truck rental company in Hudson, N.H., that was looking for three mechanics. He never heard back. He tried a maintenance company and a demolition firm. No luck at either.

Then he saw a newspaper ad for Waste Management, in Woburn. As he filled in this latest application, Maher rubbed his forehead where his hairline recedes. The linoleum- floored room was quiet. In his thick fingers, the pen didn't seem as comfortable a fit as, say, a wrench.

The job opening was on the so-called PM shift, for preventative maintenance, changing oil and greasing smelly, 10-wheel garbage trucks that one supervisor calls trash-eating ``monsters.''

Maher wanted it, all of it: the stain of grease, the stink of garbage, and the schedule in which his days would be nights.

As he once wrote on a job-seekers website, ``I know I have to update myself, but I feel I can make these changes pretty quick as I was a natural in the automotive field. I am looking for someone to take that chance.''

Would the garbage hauler be the one? He let himself hope the answer would be yes.

The shadow lifts

Darkness fell for Dennis Maher 20 years ago, when he was arrested and charged with raping one Lowell woman, assaulting another, and raping a woman in Ayer.

The crimes were brutal and terrifying. The woman in Ayer was staying alone at the Casa Manor Motel on Aug. 17, 1983, when a man entered her room and raped her at knifepoint.

The Lowell assaults occurred on consecutive nights. The first victim was a mail clerk at Wang Laboratories, who got off a city bus early in the evening of Nov. 16, 1983, and was heading home when a man pushed her into a yard. To subdue her during the rape, he punched her several times. The next night, a Lowell woman walking in the same area was attacked, but she managed to fight off her knife-wielding assailant.

The attacker wore a red-hooded sweatshirt - just what Maher happened to be wearing as he walked near the crime scene later on the night of the second assault. Investigators spotted the sweatshirt and detained him, the first turn of the legal vortex that would swallow him whole. He was charged in the Lowell attacks, then in the previously unsolved Ayer rape, and convicted at two jury trials in the spring of 1984.

``Do you care to say anything to the court?'' the judge at the Lowell trial had asked, a rote request that usually elicits no comment. Maher had other plans.

``I didn't do it,'' he told the judge poised to sentence him.

``If they call this justice,'' he continued, ``I think it's a crock....''

Maher began his life behind bars at the state prison in Walpole. In 1986 he was classified a serial rapist and transferred to the Massachusetts Treatment Center for sexual offenders in Bridgewater. Seven years later he saw lawyer Barry Scheck on TV talking about the nonprofit Innocence Project, which uses DNA to challenge wrongful convictions.

``I watched you on TV today, and it was like watching a video of my daydreams of finally being given a chance to clear my name,'' Maher wrote Scheck on May 11, 1993.

The project took up Maher's case, but nearly a decade passed before a law student found in a courthouse storage room what authorities had been saying for years they didn't have: evidence suitable for DNA testing.

In January 2001, test results showed the semen detected on the Lowell rape victim's underpants was not Maher's. Prosecutors then disclosed that a slide from the Ayer victim's rape kit had been located in the Ayer police station. Test results cleared Maher in that case, as well. Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, reviewing the findings, called the convictions a ``miscarriage of justice'' and said that, while DNA testing didn't apply in the attempted rape, that charge would be dropped, too.

Winter had given way to a season of light, suddenly and at long last.

In his last few days in prison, Maher allowed himself to dream. ``I want to go down to the river by my house and see how the river has changed,'' he wrote in the first of a series of letters to a Globe reporter. ``Go for a long walk where I don't have to walk in a circle.

``Go fishing with my father. We used to go deep sea fishing together 3 or 4 times a year. But I don't know if my father could handle it. He has had open heart surgery and has cancer.

``Go shopping and not have to buy prison colors. Black, grey, white. Also I'll be able to buy any type of sneakers I want.''

It was almost over.

By 8:30 a.m. on April 3, a chilly, drizzling day, Courtroom 6B in the Cambridge courthouse was filled with family and friends. Donat and Lucy Maher, Maher's parents, sat in the first row, next to Maher's three brothers.

Maher's Innocence Project attorney, Aliza B. Kaplan, walked across the courtroom, past the judge's bench, and into a small holding area off limits to the public. Minutes later an elevator door opened, and there was Maher in the dark-blue suit his parents bought years ago at Montgomery Ward. They had mailed him the outfit.

Maher's face was blank and pale. Still in leg shackles, he was steered into a cell where he awaited the arrival of the judge.

``You OK?'' Kaplan asked. When Maher only half-smiled, she carried on with her quiet pep talk.

``It's OK to cry,'' she said.

Maher held fast. No tears, only another nervous, half-smile.

Kaplan reached through the bars and took his hand.

``Enjoy the ride,'' she said.

Maher squeezed back.

First taste of freedom

Where do you start after 19 years?

The reassembly of Dennis Maher began the next morning in his parents' dusty cellar. He flipped open a foot locker that had sat unopened for nearly two decades and spent nearly an hour going through a pile of faded army photos of skinny teen-aged Dennis Maher in uniform. Many were taken in Italy, where he was stationed for two years. He was bulkier now, especially in his forearms, from prison weight-lifting and workouts. His hair has thinned, too, and there was a shadow across the face that, in old photos, appeared bright, youthful.

For Maher, taking a look backward was one of his first steps forward. He needed to feel grounded. He had been on ice for so long, and now, bit by bit, that protective cover had to melt.

It started with tears, the sob he wouldn't let surface in the holding cell. He'd seemed almost impassive as the district attorney filed the legal paperwork and the judge, with little comment, approved his release. An injustice of 19 years took five minutes to clean up.

The dam broke when the Maher family was reunited in a hallway outside the courtroom. ``We're a bunch of crybabies,'' Donat Maher said as he squeezed his weeping son.

His return to Lowell in a rainy drizzle was a mix of media and the mundane. He'd never been inside the two-family house on Rockdale Avenue his parents moved into while he was away, and his parents gave him a tour. It was quick, because the first-floor unit is so small. The cramped but tidy living room features his mother's ceramic animal collection and his father's toy truck collection, both neatly on display.

Then it was time to change. His mother handed him a pair of jeans, along with a T-shirt with the words, ``So far so good.'' He went to his bedroom, located right off the living room. No bigger than his prison cell, within days it would be furnished with a television, a computer, and several crates of Coca-Cola - his one sweet vice.

Two television crews dropped by to interview Maher as he settled in.

Did he have plans for his his first night out?

``I've been grounded,'' he said.

Mother's orders. While his brothers headed down to celebrate his homecoming at the Acre Pub, Maher stayed put.

His first night home, and he was asleep by 10.

The past crowds in

Over the next few weeks, Maher was up and out early every morning, taking walks across the Merrimack River to a McDonald's for an Egg McMuffin and orange juice. He checked the rocky spot on the river where he planned to go fishing once the water level lowered. He bought new clothes and, for $40, a South Bend fishing pole with an open-face reel.

He opened a bank account, depositing $1,000 he'd received from an anonymous donor and some smaller cash gifts sent him after his release. And, with his parents doing the driving, he went to the supermarket to buy grapes and a favorite brand of cooked ham he'd not tasted in years.

Old prison habits showed through. On his first afternoon out, when his younger brother John took him to buy sneakers at the mall, Maher's right hand shot up as he approached the cash register. He slapped his chest, searching. Something was missing: the name tag he wore whenever leaving his cellblock.

``You are very off the block,'' his brother said.

In the living room one night Maher grabbed the ringing telephone. ``Canteen, inmate Maher,'' he barked, then shrugged at the mistake.

Then there was the morning he replaced the rear brake shoes on his brother's 1971 Buick Centurion convertible, a prized possession nicknamed ``The Tank.'' His pliers slipped off a bolt and cut him under his left eye. As the wound quickly swelled, Maher's mind jumped back 18 years: He was in prison and had refused an older inmate's order to buy him cigarettes. The inmate, who was serving time for armed robbery, grabbed Maher by the hair and slashed his cheek and neck with a razor blade.

Making peace with freedom proved a kind of shedding process, one that sometimes flared at night. Sleep did not come easily his first weeks at home. He woke every few hours. Where were the guards? The lights streaming continuously in the hall outside?

And then there were the nightmares. In one, he was in a room with a woman in military uniform, who was talking about whether to compensate him for the Army career he'd lost. The official said they could give him only $1,800. Maher screamed back: ``You don't know what it's like to spend 19 years in prison, and think you're gonna die there!''

He awoke, sweating. Then, collecting himself, he dozed off again.

By day he began acquiring a free person's credentials. On the first Monday out he got a learner's permit at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and a $28.50 fishing license at City Hall. ``Do you have last year's license?'' the clerk asked.

``Oh, no,'' Maher answered, ``I haven't fished in 20 years.''

The clerk did a double take. Realizing Maher has cracked a joke takes an extra beat. His voice has a flatness that might have been required in prison to mask emotion but which now, at home, can make him sound remote. His face has a serious set, with frown lines accentuated by his bushy mustache.

He made another important stop at City Hall - the office of veteran services, where he began his appeal of the less than honorable discharge imposed by the Army after his convictions. One possibility is financial compensation, either through the Army or through the state legislature, where a bill filed on his behalf calls for a $500,000 payment. Maher knows passage of the bill is a longshot.

Meanwhile, there were moments of fun. A deep-sea fishing excursion in late April. A trip with his parents to the Mohegan Sun casino, where he played the quarter slot machines.

His gambling style revealed something of the man, his discipline and caution. He set a strict betting limit, $20, and stuck to it.

He took the same approach to his first beer as a newly free man. The Acre Pub is a short walk from the house, a tired looking and paint-worn place on the first floor of a triple-decker. The day of his release, balloons had been hung outside near a ``Welcome Home'' sign. Maher drank one Budweiser, which went down cold and quickly. He could have had many more, on the house or on the tab of the platoon of regulars. The last time he was in the bar - before his arrest - he was drunk. ``I collapsed on the juke box.''

But this night he downed just the one, then headed home. ``I want to follow it all, see this through clear eyes,'' he said, explaining why he kept his distance from the bar scene. ``I want to be aware of what's going on, so I can enjoy it.''

Methodically, Maher was putting the pieces of a life puzzle together. By day, he practiced his driving, with his father, a little nervous, at his side. And nights, in the privacy of his tiny room, he signed onto an online dating service. He wasn't sure what to write, or how to present himself, so he went with the only way he knows: direct.

Registering as DNADennis, he described himself as an exoneree who was ``freed by DNA after 19 years in prison.'' After a week there was just one reply, from a woman who only wanted to know, did he do the crime?

A star turn

Friends and relatives gathered in Dracut in late April at a cousin's house, one in a string of homecoming celebrations. Aliza Kaplan had come up from New York. She'd brought a present for Maher: a framed photograph taken of the two of them on exoneration day. And Maher had a gift for her: a silk scarf he'd bought long ago during his overseas tour of duty.

``It's from Italy,'' he said.

``I love scarves.''

During the car ride, the subject of famous Lowellians had come up.

``Jack Kerouac,'' someone said.

``Some actor ... Tessier,'' Maher offered.

``And Dennis Maher,'' Kaplan added.

Maher laughed. ``I hear ya.''

Every DNA exoneree has his moment of celebrity, and Maher enjoyed the spotlight in the early days of his freedom ride. But the attention never seemed to go to his head, a fact that came into focus when his reentry took him to New York in May for an Innocence Project conference devoted to helping exonerees cope with sudden freedom.

Dennis Maher was not just the newest among them; he was something of a rarity. He had come to freedom with a kind of head start: his supportive family, his work ethic, but, above all, his years of therapy as a Bridgewater inmate.

At the mandatory prison treatment programs, Maher was viewed as a rapist in denial who refused to take responsibility for his crimes. Some therapists came to consider him ``the big prize,'' Maher recalled. ``They'd say, `If we could get Dennis to admit to his crimes, that's big.'''

The standoff, he said, was ``emotionally hard.'' Even worse was the company he was forced to keep, and the stories he would hear from the child molesters and rapists around him.

But the therapy proved crucial on the outside, helping him escape the smoldering rage and debilitating self-pity many are burdened with. Maher has become a true believer. When his father grew depressed following his cancer diagnosis a few years ago, it was his son who convinced the retired factory machine operator to seek counseling.

Perhaps most remarkable, Maher long ago rejected the blame game. The Lowell Police remain a sore point, along with any mention of his trial attorney, who was eventually disbarred for malpractice committed in the Maher case and other cases. But the subject of the three women who testified against him elicits only empathy. ``I did 17 years of therapy, and it's never the victims' fault,'' he said.

It's not as if Maher doesn't get downcast. Given what he's lost, it can be a struggle to keep his focus forward: ``I want to put it behind me and get on with my life.''

One victim's voice

Patricia Gale thought she was getting on with her life. Twenty-three years old when she fought off her attacker, she was one of three women who testified against Maher at his trials.

Gale went on to marry and raise three sons. Making ends meet hasn't been easy, but they have gotten by and stuck together, a family.

Then came February 21 and a letter from the Middlesex district attorney's office. Gale opened it and read that DNA testing was underway in Maher's case.

``I kinda went, `No way, man,''' she said, recalling the moment. ```This makes no sense.'''

For 19 years the case had been closed. But every year the arrival of fall was a reminder of the Nov. 17, 1983, assault, which occurred just blocks from her childhood home. ``It might take me a good three weeks to remind myself: Knock it off. He's in jail.'' Mostly, however, she'd put the crime out of mind.

Now she thinks about it all of the time. She said she agreed to be interviewed because it seemed to her that in Maher's court proceeding and in the media, he was portrayed as the victim.

``It's like we don't exist,'' she said. ``Somebody has to let the world know that we ... still hurt,'' she said.

The two rape victims did not respond to requests for interviews.

For Gale, it has not been easy. Open and emotional, angry and despairing, she has found that her sense of herself, and of the crime, evolved subtly as she came to terms with Maher's being out.

In early June, she was adamant. ``All I have to do is see his name in the paper and I'm back to Nov. 17 and it's 5:20 and he's walking across the street at an angle and he's asking me for a match and he's grabbing my arm.''

A week later, Gale found herself struggling with her long-held certainty over Maher's role.

``Anger and hate is not a way to live, I know that,'' she said. ``Maybe in the end I'll come to the realization I've played tricks on my own mind... I'm not saying it's not impossible I was wrong. I'm saying that today in my heart I feel the same way I felt 20 years ago.

``And maybe he's got a twin out there, you know?''

She admitted she almost envies the two rape victims; in their cases, the DNA has proved there was a mistake. ``They at least know it wasn't him, for sure.''

Her challenge is entirely different. ``There is no clarity,'' she said.

Day for night

Two minutes before 9 o'clock on the hot summer night of June 23, Dennis Maher grabbed his duffel bag and walked through the tiny living room of his parent's house. Inside the bag were a couple of 20-ounce Cokes from the stash in his room, some adjustable wrenches, and a fluorescent-green company T-shirt.

``Have a good night, Dennis,'' his mother Lucy said from the couch.

``Yeah,'' Maher said, walking through the kitchen. ``Good night.''

For all its seeming ordinariness, it was an extraordinary moment.

Dennis Maher got the job at Waste Management, and this was his first official shift.

He climbed into the front seat of a car - his car. It's a 1987 Cutlass Supreme with a velour interior. Needing a car to commute to Woburn, he had scrambled to find one that would pass inspection. It cost $900.

The Chevy stalled on the first try, then caught. Maher steered slowly down the narrow, one-way street, past the crowded two-family homes, past the blare of televisions and conversations spoken in Spanish and other languages. Dogs barked, and a couple of children on bikes raced into the night.

``I feel fine,'' he said.

He should. The company had been willing to give him a shot. Suddenly, he can imagine himself with a better car, his own place, maybe even a family someday.

During the job interview he'd worried about the criminal record check. The state bureaucracy had yet to expunge his rape convictions, even though months had passed since his release.

But company officials weren't put off by his complicated legal history. Because the company has airport contracts, its managers had other concerns. ``They wanted to make sure I wasn't a terrorist,'' Maher said.

Maher, who loves to tell the story, shook his head as if to say, Can you believe it? Dennis Maher, a terrorist? He passed that test.

And he's passed others. In a few short months he's made a dent in the humble checklist he compiled before his release.

New sneakers? Check.

Upgrading his army discharge? Paperwork filed.

Driver's license and his own car? Check.

Deep-sea fishing? Check.

Job? Check.

Romance? Half a check.

His friends had fixed him up with a couple of dates, and he fell for one. But she backed off after a fast, one-week courtship, and Maher knew right away he'd pressed a little too hard, too fast. Later, he lined up a date for noon one Saturday in the food court of the Rockingham Mall. He waited an hour, wearing a purple T-shirt with a Garfield cartoon on it that said, ``I Flunked Sensitivity Training.''

The woman never showed up. She later apologized, saying in an e-mail that she got cold feet.

``They freak out,'' he said, ``when they hear my story.''

Arriving at the garage, Maher headed off to change into a bulky, army-green jumpsuit. His company uniform won't be in for a couple of weeks, after he gets his first week's paycheck for $680. Walking to his bay, Dennis had a bounce to his step. His boss, master mechanic Mike Duve, looked on.

``That's gotta sour you, 20 years for a crime you didn't commit,'' Duve said, but he hasn't detected any sourness in the new hire. ``He seems like a nice guy. We'll put him out here and see how he does.''

Duve coached Maher as the shift got began, a talkative and helpful supervisor. He championed the waste industry. ``There's always gonna be garbage,'' he pointed out, ``and it's something not a lot of people want to do.''

Maher is one who does. ``I ain't fussy,'' he said. ``This is good.''

Duve then launched into a list of gross-out moments that come with the job. Skunks. Rats. Maggots. ``Mutant bugs, every bug imaginable,'' he said boastfully.

Maher listened, then poked around the toolbox and picked out a wrench. It seemed at home in his hand.

``The rats, the maggots, the bugs, they don't bother you?'' Duve asked.

``I was in prison.''

The reminder stopped the boss cold.

The two men shared a smile, and Dennis Maher got to work.

More on this story, plus a photo gallery, may be viewed at www.boston.com/globe. Dick Lehr can be reached by email at dickdlehr@aol.com.

photo gallery
Photo gallery
Dennis smiles at his parents in the courtroom moments before he is freed. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)    Photo gallery
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