In January 1975 two white undercover Boston police officers gunned down an innocent black man at the Mission Hill housing project, and then were accused along with other Boston police in a bungled scheme to cover it up. While on stakeout on a suspected getaway car used in an armed robbery, the two gunned down a black man who entered the car. The two claimed the man had a gun and they shot in self-defense. Police investigation decided it was a rightful shooting. The man’s widow knew her husband would not be carrying a weapon and became determined to prove her husband’s innocence. Attorney Lawrence O’Donnell of Boston, a former officer himself, conducted a three-year investigation on behalf of the widow, Patricia Bowden, which prompted two federal juries to agree in a historic verdict that the death of James Bowden “was malicious, willful, wanton or reckless,” and the result was a landmark legal decision which included a settlement of $843,000 for Bowden’s widow and two children. In more than 100 years, no one had won such a judgment against any police department.
Former Boston Phoenix reporter Dave O’Brian was on assignment to write a feature story about Boston’s Tactical Patrol Force, O’Brian was in the back seat of the police cruiser along with a news photographer. When the shooting occurred, he was crouched on the floor in fear. His role became crucial, though, because his notes about what happened in the aftermath contradicted police.
Looking for a tall, thin man, the police stake out the wrong car, then shoot a man who’s 5 feet 4 and weighs 180 pounds and who’s never been accused of a crime. Their versions in court contradict those of eyewitnesses, and also one another. A gun is planted at the scene to incriminate Bowden, but it’s the wrong type. Crucial tape recordings from the dispatcher’s office are missing. The police arrest O’Donnell’s son on a trumped-up charge, and beat him.
Channel Jamarhl Crawford