By Jim Smith
BRISTOL, R.I. — The case of a Boston police officer convicted of lying to a grand jury about the beating of a fellow black officer was heard last Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals sitting at Roger Williams Law School.
Ken Conley, whose cause has been taken up by prominent Hub politicians and thousands of residents of his native South Boston, was convicted last June of perjury and obstruction of justice after he testified that he had not seen Michael Cox during a wild pursuit of four murder suspects at a dimly lit Mattapan cul-de-sac in the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 1995.
Cox, wearing plain clothes during that chase, was evidently mistaken for one of the suspects when he was struck over the head and severely beaten by other officers. By that time, dozens of officers had arrived at the scene, including Conley.
Conley insisted during his 1997 grand jury testimony that he had not seen Cox during the pursuit because he was focused on one of the fleeing suspects, who had leaped over a fence. After a three-quarter-mile foot chase, Conley apprehended that fugitive at gunpoint.
Conley’s supporters claim that the Irish-American officer is a scapegoat who was squeezed for information in 1997 by federal prosecutors who were frustrated with the two-year wall of silence that surrounded the case.
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When he refused to alter his story, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to nearly three years in jail for perjury and obstruction of justice. He remains free pending the outcome of the appeal.
Conley is the only person who has been criminally charged in the case. Three other officers, two black and one white, were found liable by a federal civil jury last December for the beating of Cox and related offenses. Conley was found not liable for any offense relating to that incident.
Surrounded by friends and family, Conley heard his defense lawyer, Willie Davis, tell the Appeals Court that the conviction was clearly based on insufficient evidence. Conley, he argued, was focused not on his surroundings but on the fleeing suspect, whom he eventually apprehended.
Davis also argued that the trial judge erred when he allowed a member of the grand jury that convicted Conley to testify for the prosecution during the perjury trial.
S. Theodore Merritt, assistant U.S. attorney, told the Appeals Court that the evidence was obviously sufficient to convince a jury that Conley had given false testimony when he said he had not observed Cox during the pursuit.
Last month one of those jurors, Burgess Nichols, told a Channel 4 TV reporter and the Irish Echo that he regrets having convicted Conley. Nichols said that he is now convinced of Conley’s innocence.
Merritt came under fire from the AOH and the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts several weeks ago after he filed a brief stating that Conley had put the murder suspect he had captured into a "paddy wagon."
The Appeals Court is expected to render its decision within the next several months.