Maher Discusses Imprisonment and Exoneration On Behalf of the Innocence Project

“I told myself when I was in prison that after I was released I would take two months off, I’d find a job, get married, have children and buy a house. I took a two month break, found a job, got married to my wife, have two children and own two houses,” said former United States Sergeant Dennis Maher. Maher, who spent 19 years in jail fighting to prove himself innocent after receiving life imprisonment for two rapes and an attempted rape, was finally exonerated with legal help from the New England Innocence Project (NEIP) in 2003. Brought by Mock Trial, Maher spoke to the Andover community about his wrongful conviction and his journey to prove his innocence. The NEIP, according to the project website, is a national organization comprised of attorneys dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing. In March and April of 1984, Maher was tried and found guilty of two rapes and an attempted rape. Maher said the false conviction was based, in large part, on police bias during the identification process. When witnesses or victims are asked to identify the alleged perpetrator, the official heading the investigation may often inadvertently “lead” the witness to incorrectly identify one person over the others. “I speak because it’s a good way for me to give back to the people who fought to prove my innocence. There’s a double-blind system in this country that is the reason for numerous false convictions,” said Maher. Following the false conviction, Maher took it upon himself to do independent legal work in order to prove his innocence during his 19-year imprisonment. He filed for numerous appeals and motions, all of which were denied. “I filed motions for a paternity test to test the blood to see if it matched mine…they all had to go in front of a sentencing judge. He denied everything without a final hearing,” said Maher. Maher’s turning point came in 2000, when he finally successfully contacted the New England Innocence Project (NEIP). The NEIP assigned two attorneys, Aliza Kaplan and Karin Burns, to Maher’s case. Initially, their attempts to find evidence to compare Maher’s DNA sample were met with false claims that it had been destroyed or lost after 19 years. After months of digging, however, the lawyers were able to uncover the old evidence, which they then sent to a forensics lab in California to be analyzed. The findings exonerated him of his first prison sentence in 2002. Ten days after Maher’s first exoneration, a DNA slide linked to the second and third victims was found by Burns and Kaplan, exonerating him from his life imprisonment and ultimately leading to his release in April of 2003. “I told the press I was overwhelmed when I left the courthouse that day. It was just so much to take in and so much to be thankful for,” said Maher. Maher emphasized that anyone has the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. “I wanted you guys to realize that wrongful convictions do happen in this country, and to make people aware that you can make a difference in the future,” said Maher. “Strive to be the best, and make a difference in your country, in the world. If the young generation steps up to help, then a difference can be made.” “When he talked about how he rebuilt his life, it astonished me… It really comes to show that no matter what obstacles you have to deal with, you can still build up a good life for yourself,” said Devontae Freeland ’15. “Usually, [people are] given the justice standpoint with judges and lawyers. With [Maher], we were given a different perspective [about] the justice system here in America and what it’s like for the convicted,” said Ben Croen ’13, co-head of Mock Trial. Maher now works as a diesel mechanic and travels around the New England area to different universities and high schools to retell his story. He is married and has two children, one of whom he named Aliza after one of the attorneys who helped exonerate him.