Victor Rosario
Convicted 1983
Death of 8 people.
Sentence: Life
Exonerated 2014

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On the basis of statements signed while in the throes of delirium tremens, Mr. Rosario was convicted 27 years ago of a crime he did not commit. The police concede that, during the interrogation, Mr. Rosario had a mental breakdown during which he fell on the floor crying and screaming incoherently for at least twenty minutes. In that confused and highly suggestible state, he allegedly confessed that he and two friends had started a fire in a clapboard apartment house in Lowell that killed eight people. According to the statement, each of the men threw a Molotov cocktail into the building.

Notwithstanding that Mr. Rosario’s behavior in jail was so obviously psychotic that, two days after the interrogation, he was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital where he was kept for six weeks before he was judged competent to stand trial, the court found that his statements had been voluntary and reliable. As a result, in March 1983, Mr. Rosario was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. His two friends were also arrested and held until Mr. Rosario was released from the mental hospital. He could not remember what he had said during the interrogation and did not recognize the statements. Because the truth of the matter was neither he nor his friends had committed arson, he did not testify against his two friends. Since there was absolutely no evidence, apart from Mr. Rosario’s “confession” which was made while he was in a delusional state linking them to the fire, they were released without ever being indicted.

A nationally recognized arson expert has reviewed the testimony and reports prepared for Mr. Rosario’s case and found that the evidence cited by the prosecution witnesses was no more indicative of arson than of an accidental fire. In particular, the arson expert found that the total absence of any evidence of the remains of Molotov cocktails made it highly improbable that they were used to start the fire. It also would have been impossible for the eyewitness not to have seen the flaming wick of the Molotov cocktail when he passed the man who allegedly threw the cocktail that started the fire.

The prosecutor found a man who claimed he had passed the building just before it burst into flames. He had heard glass breaking and turned and seen a man standing in front of the building with his left arm in the air. (Mr. Rosario is right handed)The eyewitness testified that he did not see the man throw anything but, nonetheless, the prosecution argued that it was obvious the man had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the building. The eyewitness could not identify Mr. Rosario from a book of mug shots. However, after seeing a photograph of Mr. Rosario on the front page of the local newspaper under the banner headline 3 arrested in fatal fire; drugs revenge cited, the eyewitness then was able to make an identification after a little additional prodding by the police.

The defense attorney who had been arrested for vehicular homicide just before the trial and was, by his own admission, distracted by his own legal problems, failed to hire an arson expert who could have impeached the testimony of the prosecution experts and the conclusions regarding the Molotov cocktails. He also failed to obtain Mr. Rosario’s medical records from Bridgewater in which the examining forensic psychiatrist concluded that Mr. Rosario had been psychotic during the police interrogation. Thus, when the psychiatrist testified that he had no opinion as to Mr. Rosario’s mental state during the interrogation, the defense attorney was unable to impeach the doctor with his own prior statement.

Mr. Rosario has been incarcerated since 1982. He has presented his case to the parole board twice but been denied parole because he will not accept responsibility for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Rosario is on his way to be ordained as a minister by Temple Baptist Church in Boston. He and his wife have recently incorporated an organization called Remember Those in Captivity Ministries. The purpose of the new organization is to help families of inmates stay in touch with the incarcerated and prepare for their release.

Read about the Rosario case in the Boston Globe.

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CRIME: Convicted of the murder of eight people in a house fire in Lowell, MA.

SENTENCE: Life in prison (1983)

PROSECUTOR'S ARGUMENT: After being questioned by police, Rosario signed a confession stating that he and two friends used Molotov cocktails to start the fire in revenge of a bad drug deal. To the investigator, burn patterns found on the floor, evidence of two origins of the fire, and burning and charring on the doors and walls were all indicators of arson. After seeing an article stating that Rosario had been arraigned in conjunction with the case, a witness reported seeing a man near a window of the house that looked like Rosario.

DISPUTED EVIDENCE: Debris samples tested negative for liquid accelerants, and no remains of Molotov cocktails were found at the scene of the fire.

Since the trial, the translator during Rosario's five hour questioning with police has issued an affidavit stating that Rosario was delusional during his interrogation and incoherent when he signed the confession. In addition to the affidavit, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Judith G. Edersheim has reviewed the case and has said that Rosario's behavior during questioning could be explained by delirium tremens as a result of alcohol withdrawal. According to Edersheim, Rosario had liver damage that was indicative of alcohol abuse.
Rosario's attorney has since admitted to possibly being distracted from the case by vehicular homicide charges that he faced at the time against the same DA's office that he opposed during Rosario's trial.
Experts Craig Beyler and John Lentini have reviewed the case and both argue that assumptions were made based on outdated fire science, and that investigators failed to prove the fire was intentionally set.

Among the experts' arguments:
+  There was no evidence of a flammable liquid or remains from a bottle used to make a Molotov cocktail, making it very unlikely that they were used.
+  The finding of multiple origins of the fire was not based on current arson science, notably the scientific understanding of flashover.
+  Charring on the floor and low burning is no longer indicative of a presence of flammable liquids.
+  Accidental causes were not eliminated.

NOW: Two new attorneys, Esther Horwitz and Andrea Petersen, have taken on Rosario's case. According to Horwitz, they are currently in the process of having more experts review the case, notably an expert on false confessions, and are working towards filing a motion for a new trial.