Free at Last, Exoneree Tells Story

Psychology and Law Prof Brings Innocence Project to Campus

Asst. Prof. Stephanie Block, left, with Dennis Maher and Elizabeth Regan, senior paralegal with the New England Innocence Project.

Asst. Prof. Stephanie Block, left, with Dennis Maher and Elizabeth Regan, senior paralegal with the New England Innocence Project.

11/04/2011
By Sandra Seitz

Dennis Maher spent 19 years in prison for three vicious attacks on women, two in Lowell and one in Ayer.

He was innocent.

Maher described his experiences, his appeal to the Innocence Project for help and his eventual exoneration, in a recent presentation on campus hosted by psychology Asst. Prof. Stephanie Block for her Psychology and Law seminar. Maher’s story has been featured in a film, After Innocence, and in newspaper accounts.

A U.S. Army sergeant and 23 years old at the time of his arrest in 1983, Maher was sentenced to life in prison and was civilly committed to Bridgewater. After the Innocence Project took his case, later transferred to the New England Innocence Project, it took years of effort to gain access to biological evidence from the crime scenes and conduct the DNA testing that exonerated him. Massachusetts is one of only two states that do not mandate DNA testing access to prisoners with innocence claims.

Maher points to many flaws in the system that placed him behind bars and the excessive zeal of some individuals, but he doesn’t blame the victims for their mistaken eyewitness identifications.

“They suffered terribly,” he said, noting that changes have been made in the witness identification process. “It’s a double-blind process – an uninvolved officer, without any knowledge of the arrest, shows photos one at a time.”

The district attorney who had prosecuted him apologized to Maher at his release and asked for forgiveness – and experience that was “a big help in moving on with my life,” said Maher. “It’s rare for a prosecutor to apologize.”

Students at the event peppered Maher with questions. 

Had he sued for wrongful conviction? Yes. The state paid the maximum $500,000; Ayer settled for $3.1 million. He is still trying to clear his records from every state agency.

What was the hardest adjustment to release? The use of electronics and the spatial freedom, to “walk anywhere in a straight line,” said Maher. “I still have sleep problems – I was accustomed to interrupted sleep.”

Does he know other prisoners who are innocent? “If just one percent of those in prison are innocent, that’s twenty thousand people,” said Maher. “The estimates are three to four percent innocence.”

Psychology and Law seminar students, who helped organize the event, were impressed by the presentation.

“A lot of us had no idea how many people could be wrongly accused and spend so long in prison,” said Alessandra Cecala, senior psychology major. “It’s important to know such things go on.”

“The entire class has been eye opening,” said senior Emily Hilly, who plans graduate work in forensic psychology.