Wrongful Convictions: Massachusetts Justice Delayed, But Not Denied

Summer went and interrupted again my writing again. Like everyone, I need to recharge my batteries, and as I don’t ski in winter or go hiking in spring, summer is my time of year. When it hits, I usually head south to Cape Cod whenever my schedule allows, and (so far, anyway,) my computer doesn’t come with me (though I’m sure that will change in time.) My apologies to any of my readers who’ve missed my writing.

I thought that with all the negative news going on these days, I’d highlight some positive news in the field of criminal law in Massachusetts. Many of my readers are familiar with the story of how a federal judge in Boston ruled in 2007 that the FBI, over forty years ago, framed four men for a notorious 1965 gangland murder, which none of them committed. The case came to be known as the “Teddy Deegan Murder Case”, after the victim of that March 1965 slaying. That 2007 court ruling, by United States District Court judge Nancy Gertner, included a damages award that ordered the U.S. government to pay a total of $101.7 million to the four men wrongfully convicted, two of whom are still alive, and two who have passed away. The two surviving former prisoners are Peter J. Limone and Joseph Salvati. The two men who have passed away are Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco, who died while still in prison. Greco is survived by his wife, Roberta Werner of Boynton Beach, Florida, who is the executrix of his estate.

In 2004, Massachusetts passed a state statute that allows for a maximum payment of $500,000 to a person wrongfully convicted by the Commonwealth. While this law does not prevent such individuals from seeking or collecting state damages even if they have been awarded damages in federal court, the attorney for Mrs. Greco has entered into an agreement with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley that she will repay the state the full $500,000 if and when the federal government ever pays at least that much of the judgment ordered by judge Gertner. (The federal government has not yet paid the judgments, as the government has appealed judge Gertner’s ruling.)

Massachusetts is among approximately 24 states that have passed laws compensating the wrongfully convicted, and since the Massachusetts law was passed in 2004, approximately 25 people have filed for this type of compensation with the state attorney general’s office. But what makes this particular payment unusual, is that this is the first time the state of Massachusetts has ever made such a payment to the estate of someone wrongfully convicted (i.e., after that person has died,) rather than to the wrongfully convicted person himself. It is thought that given the severity of this case, the harm done to the families of these men, and the age of Louis Greco’s widow, Attorney General Coakley’s office did not object to the state making this payment even in the face of the federal award. So far, the family of Henry Tameleo has not filed a claim with the state Attorney General’ office.

This case was made famous, in large part due to the investigative journalism and hard work of Dan Rea, a longtime reporter for WBZ-TV – Boston (CBS), who brought to the public eye the deliberate framing of these four men, and the resulting cover-up by FBI agents in the 1960’s. The story was covered nationally, including CBS’ 60 Minutes, Ted Koppel’s Nightline, and national press. Rea, not coincidentally, is a (non-practicing) lawyer in Massachusetts.

While horribly and irreversibly delayed, in the end, perhaps, justice wasn’t denied. Let’s hope so.