For Victor Rosario, Justice is a Marathon, not a Sprint

By Denise McWilliams

Victor Rosario challenged himself yesterday.  He ran the New York City Marathon.  His friends worried that he hadn’t trained enough. “The problem is he never says no to anyone,” they said. “I’ve never seen anyone like him.”  Turns out they needn’t have worried: he finished in 4:35:36.  Not a bad time for a 58 year old man who didn’t do enough training.

Victor is used to challenges.  Arguably his greatest was his wrongful conviction of homicide by arson in 1983.   The evidence against him?   Flawed fire science that mischaracterized the vestiges of an intense fire as evidence of arson.  A false confession extracted while Victor was undergoing delirium tremens due to alcohol withdrawal.  And, finally, an eyewitness identification that correctly identified him as being at the scene, but was then used to support a series of erroneous conclusions that supported the prosecutor’s theory.

 The remains of the Lowell, Massachusetts home, destroyed by fire. (Property of the Lowell Sun)

The remains of the Lowell, Massachusetts home, destroyed by fire. (Property of the Lowell Sun)

Victor spent 32 years in prison, steadfastly maintaining his innocence and fighting for his freedom until, in July 2014, Judge Kathe Tuttman overturned the convictions and granted Victor a new trial. He was released on bail, no longer imprisoned but left in the uncomfortable position of waiting to see what further action the Commonwealth was going to take. The Commonwealth appealed Judge Tuttman’s decision and the Supreme Judicial Court will hear that appeal tomorrow, November 8, 2016.  In the meantime, however, Victor hasn’t been waiting on the courts to act.

Victor had been ordained as a minister while in prison, and once released on bail he began active ministry, preaching at local churches.  He and Beverly, his wife of 22 years, founded an organization to help people in prison maintain contact with their families and to support re-entry upon their release. As demonstrated by his successful completion of the marathon yesterday, Victor is also a runner.  He became one while in prison, routinely running 76 laps around the prison yard. Once, to celebrate his birthday, he ran the length of a marathon around the yard. Victor is the inspiration for and active member of the Running for Innocence team, a group of runners who ask their communities to sponsor them in races and use the funds generated to pay for the scientific and technical expenses of innocence cases. 

So: Victor has met many challenges, and has done so with courage and grace.  But tomorrow’s challenge is different. This time, Victor is issuing the challenge to the Massachusetts criminal justice system.  The challenge, simply put, is this: can Massachusetts find a way to acknowledge the error of this man’s conviction and finally put the record to right? Or, will the criminal justice system’s historic refusal to set aside wrongful convictions hold sway over justice yet again? NEIP, along with the Boston College Innocence Program and the Innocence Project, recently filed an amicus brief on Victor’s behalf.

 Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Victor Rosario.

Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Victor Rosario.

In the last several years, Massachusetts courts (particularly the Supreme Judicial Court) have shown a willingness to rely upon science to rectify earlier wrongs. NEIP hopes that the trend will be sustained tomorrow, and that the arc will continue to bend towards justice.