Alfred Trenkler has been incarcerated in federal prison for nearly twenty-five years for a crime he did not commit.
25 years ago, police in Roslindale, MA received a phone call from a Thomas Shay Sr., who told them that a suspicious device had dislodged from the underbelly of his car. Officers Jeremiah Hurley and Francis Foley showed up to the scene, where they found a dynamite bomb encased in a black box. In the process of attempting to dismantle the device, it detonated. Officer Hurley was tragically killed, and Officer Foley severely injured.
Thomas Shay’s son, Thomas Shay Jr., was focused on by police early in the investigation, due to a number of incoherent statements he made, implying that the bomb had in fact been meant for him. Despite Shay Jr.’s documented history of mental illness, the police moved forward with the lead, and from an address book belonging to Shay Jr., they found Alfred Trenkler. Baselessly, the prosecution alleged that Trenkler and Shay Jr. had been involved in a relationship, and that Trenkler had built the bomb at the behest of Shay Jr., who wanted to kill his father in order to cash in on an insurance policy. Police interest in Trenkler intensified when it came to light that he was an electrical engineer. Years prior, he had been involved in the prankish creation of an explosive device for a friend, which was then attached to the bottom of a car and detonated, creating a very loud explosion but no property damage or injuries. Trenkler was not convicted of any crime relating to this incident, though it undoubtedly served as the catalyst for the prosecution’s interest in and case against him.
At trial, the evidence against Trenkler was entirely circumstantial. A jailhouse snitch, David Lindholm, testified that Trenkler had confessed his guilt in assembling the bomb to him while they were incarcerated together. In exchange for his testimony against Trenkler, Lindholm received a substantial reduction in his sentence – though at trial he vehemently denied the existence of any such agreement. Lindholm has since gone on to make a career as a government witness. Shay Jr.’s implication of Trenkler also went forward at trial, despite the fact that Shay Jr. had been diagnosed with pseudologica fantasica, a mental illness which results in pathological lying and delusions. Trenkler was convicted of murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison.
Since trial, the evidence originally supporting Trenkler's conviction has been roundly discredited, piece by piece. Five jurors have come forward to publically state their belief in Trenkler’s innocence. Virtually all of the circumstantial trial evidence has been undermined by new and more reliable information. After inculpating Trenkler, Shay Jr. recanted his statements and claimed to have been threatened by government attorneys. Fingerprint evidence, not disclosed at trial, also exculpated Trenkler.
Additionally, in their myopic focus on Trenkler and Shay Jr,. the government ignored some highly coincidental evidence involving Thomas Shay Sr. At the time of the incident, Shay Sr. was something of a professional plaintiff, having filed over 10 lawsuits, including several personal injury suits, four automobile accidents, one suit against Burger King after his young daughter cut her finger in a restaurant, a suit against Mickey Mouse after he claimed injury on a ride at Disneyland, and a plethora of others. He was at the time embroiled in a $400,000 suit against his former landlords, who owned the space in which his auto-body shop had previously been located. Shay Sr.’s suit against his landlords alleged that they threw a stick of dynamite into a barrel at his auto-body shop in an attempt to intimidate him, and subsequently dumped metal scraps in his driveway. In the suit, he was claiming that the dynamite incident caused him grievous physical injury and mental paranoia, which together prevented him from continuing to work. At the time that Shay Sr. purportedly discovered the device which killed Officer Hurley, the insurance company from whom he was hoping to receive money was unconvinced of the fact that Shay Sr.’s previous landlords were in fact making threats against his life, as he had been claiming.
Trenkler’s conviction and subsequent attempts at post-conviction relief perfectly illustrates the “piecemeal problem” in our criminal justice system – the failure of courts to recognize post-conviction innocence claims when evidence of innocence emerges piece by piece, rather than all at once. While all of the new evidence has come to light bit by bit, strict post-conviction statute of limitations periods have demanded immediate filings. Additionally, since his conviction in 1993, Trenkler has been largely unrepresented by counsel and has pursued post-conviction relief on his own behalf. The courts have effectively reviewed each new claim in isolation – meaning no court has had the benefit of assessing all the new evidence in the aggregate. This means that there has been no opportunity to view the evidentiary landscape as a whole, and recognize that virtually every piece of evidence originally supporting Trenkler's conviction is no longer viable. In short, the courts have failed to see the forest for the trees. Trenkler sits in federal prison despite the absence of any credible evidence that he actually committed the crime.
On October 8th, Joan Baez, who has partnered with the Innocence Network, will be highlighting Trenkler's case at her show at the Wang Theater in Boston.
We are asking United States Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz that Trenkler’s case be reopened in light of the numerous items of post-conviction innocence which have emerged. Will you add your name to our petition?