By Jim Smith
BOSTON — Ken Conley, the suspended Irish-American Boston police officer convicted of lying to a grand jury about what he saw during the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 1995 when a fellow police officer was beaten, is scheduled to begin serving a 34-month prison sentence within the coming weeks despite mounting protests from editorial boards, politicians and citizens across this city.
Last Wednesday, more than 200 supporters of Conley rallied in front of the federal courthouse, condemning what they describe as an outrageous miscarriage of justice.
Conley, who is 30, was found not guilty in June 1998 of a perjury charge that he had lied when he said he had not witnessed the beating of fellow police officer, Michael Cox, during a wild pursuit of four murder suspects at a dimly lit cul-de-sac in Mattapan. Cox, who was in plain clothes as about 45 police officers converged on the scene, was hit over the head and severely beaten by other officers who mistook him for one of the fleeing suspects.
However, Conley was found guilty of perjury by that same jury for telling the grand jury in 1997 that he had not seen Cox running up to a fence during the pursuit just before Cox was set upon by fellow officers.
Conley claims he was focused on a fleeing suspect, whom he eventually apprehended after jumping over the fence, and had no awareness of Cox being in the vicinity during the commotion, which involved at least 40 responding officers.
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As reported in the Echo in March, a juror who convicted Conley, Burgess Nichols, told a Channel 4 TV reporter and the Echo that he regretted his decision to find Conley guilty of the one perjury count. He said that he has since visited the crime scene late at night and has become convinced of Conley’s innocence.
"I believe Conley was focused on getting his man, not on all the commotion around him," Nichols said at the time.
Last month, a federal appeals court upheld Conley’s conviction.
Two weeks ago, the Boston Globe editorial board met with Conley. On Aug. 13, an editorial in that newspaper called Conley’s pending incarceration "a grave injustice." It concluded "A terrible stillness set in after Boston police officers beat and abandoned Michael Cox. No one claims that Conley participated. A jury has found that he didn’t witness it either. Yet Conley is on the verge of sinking in this bog of injustice."
Many of Conley’s Southie supporters claim that he is a scapegoat who was squeezed in 1997 by federal prosecutors who were frustrated by the two-year wall of silence that surrounded the case.
Last December, three other officers, two black and one white, were found liable by a federal civil jury for the beating of Cox and related offenses. Conley was found not liable for any offense related to that incident. Yet he remains the only person who has been criminally charged in the case.
Martin Hanley, who is 83, was one of those at last week’s demonstration outside the federal courthouse. The County Roscommon native and Dorchester resident described Conley as a "sacrificial lamb" who has been unfairly targeted by federal authorities.
"The boy was brought up decent in the true faith of an Irishman," Hanley said, "He’s a Celt and he’ll fight this, as we all will. The U.S. government should just put this thing on hold."
Among those who are rallying behind Conley is the federal prisoner featured in last week’s Echo, Richard Johnson, who now works as an office clerk for Willie Davis, the lawyer who has been representing Conley.
Johnson, who lives in a federal halfway house after being in prison since February 1991, has offered to speak with Conley about the federal prison system. Conley and his supporters, however, are putting off that discussion, hoping that further legal remedies and the public outcry for justice will keep Conley out of jail.
According to Johnson, the federal prison population has changed considerably over the years. "It used to be a place for white-collar criminals, guys involved with tax evasion, mail fraud, the Mafia and heavy-duty bank robberies," he said. "Since the government got involved in local law enforcement, there are a lot of street-corner crack dealers in there now. I’d say about 80 percent of the guys are in there for drugs."
Johnson’s concern, and that of Conley’s supporters, is that Conley will not be well received by the inmate population because he is a police officer. "Obviously his background as a cop won’t be to his advantage in jail," he said.
Supporters of Conley are planning additional rallies and events in the coming days in a desperate attempt to forestall his expected imminent entry into federal prison.