AYER, MA — On November 16, 1983, Dennis Maher did not rape anyone. Nor did he attack a second victim the following evening. Regardless, police arrested the 22-year-old Massachusetts for both crimes — as well as a third sexual assault he did not commit — and Maher ended up serving 19 years behind bars.
In the initial incident, a male perpetrator snuck up on a 28-year-old woman walking home, forced her into a darkened yard, and sexually assaulted her. About 24 hours later, someone committed a crime with the same MO against a 23-year-old female less than 300 feet away from the first assault.
The second time, the man pulled a knife, but the victim managed to struggle free and make it to the cops. Once there, she described her attacker as wearing a red hoodie and a khaki military jacket.
Shortly thereafter, officers at a random checkpoint busted Dennis Maher for possessing a small bag of marijuana. He was wearing a red hoodie. A search of Maher’s vehicle turned up an army jacket and a military-issue knife. Bear in mind, though, that Maher actually a sergeant in the United States Army at the time.
Maher presented alibis for both nights, and two fellow Army officers backed him up. After a witness failed to pick out Maher from a lineup, a judge ordered him to be cut loose. Upon exiting the precinct house, however, cops from another county arrested Maher for the same two attacks, as well as for a third that occurred earlier.
Within one month, powerful prosecutor J. W. Carney got Maher convicted of rape, attempted rape, assault and battery, and an array of lesser charges.
Just prior to sentencing, Judge Robert Barton asked Maher if he had anything to say. In his Southie accent, then, Maher proclaimed:
“Your honor, if you call this justice, then you and your whole system are a crock of s—t.”
Judge Barton promptly slammed Maher with 30 years plus life.
For the next 16 years, Maher worked tirelessly to get out of prison. He taught himself the law, filed appeals, and never gave up.
Maher’s work led him in 1997 to The Innocence Project, a legal advocacy dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. The organization’s attorneys filed a motion for physical evidence that had been excluded from the original trial to undergo DNA testing.
Judge Robert Barton, who originally sentenced Maher and had subsequently shot down his bids for a new trial, rejected the motion. Three years passed until Judge Barton retired, and Maher saw an opportunity to reach a cooler head with his appeal.
Teamed with attorney Aliza Kaplan from the New England Innocence Project, Maher ran into new frustrations as the police claimed the original evidence had been lost. Time and again, they put in requests for clerks to scour their warehouses with the same result: Nobody could find it.
In 2001, a box containing the victims’ clothing miraculously turned up. A judge approved a motion for DNA testing, and not only did the science clear Maher, it proved that two different assailants had attacked the two victims.
After reviewing the DNA results, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office advocated for Maher’s release, with J. A. Carney — the original prosecutor — leading the charge.
On April 3, 2003, Dennis Maher walked free. Carney publicly apologized to him and Maher accepted it, later saying:
“A lot of the DAs will not apologize because they don’t think they did anything wrong. Or it would be below them to apologize. But Jay just said, ‘I’m sorry’. Just like that.”
The two men have since remained friendly. Each year, they mutually address an annual conference of prosecutors at Harvard.
Judge Clark, however, has never apologized. He did say, in hindsight, that he might have allowed earlier DNA testing, noting, “Obviously, I was mistaken about that.”
Maher said his plans after prison were to take two months off, find a job, meet a woman, and have kids. He has since accomplished all that and more. In addition, he settled with the city of Ayer for $3.1 million and the state of Massachusetts for $550,000.
Regardless, he also works passionately to free other innocent prisoners, fighting to get DNA bills passed nationwide that will easily enable such scientific testing.
In 2011, he told Boston.com, “There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ in prison, and what if there was no DNA? I’d still be in prison. So I don’t dwell on a lot of ‘what ifs’ and ‘it could’ve been,’ I do mostly here and now. I’m here now, living my life.”
Recommended For You:
Main photo: Dennis Maher/YouTube video [screenshot]