A Massachusetts man who spent decades years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of setting a fire that killed eight people will receive $13 million from the city where he was arrested.
Looking at the photo of himself taken when he was 24 years old in a courtroom, Victor Rosario said he sees injustice.
“I tried with my eyes to communicate I'm an innocent man. Nobody believed it in that time,” said Rosario, standing outside of the John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston Wednesday afternoon. He joined his attorneys at Loevy & Loevy to announce they had reached the $13 million settlement with the City of Lowell over his wrongful conviction in 1983. Rosario served 32 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2017.
Rosario’s attorneys said he tried to help people trapped in a burning apartment building in Lowell in November of 1982. Hours later he was arrested for arson and murder. Eight people died in the fire, including five children. He was later convicted and sentenced to eight concurrent life sentences.
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“There has never been any physical evidence that there was an arson on Decatur Street. Not one shred of evidence yet, a couple hours afterwards, investigators determined that it was arson and they had to find a suspect,” said Mark Loevy-Reyes, one of the attorneys representing Rosario in the federal civil lawsuit against the City of Lowell.
“They coerced a confession after keeping him up all night. Victor was traumatized because he had tried to save children from the burning fire. He heard their screams. He hadn't slept. And after an all-night interrogation, they told Victor, if you sign this piece of paper, you can go,” said Loevy-Reyes.
“It was basically a language issue, I don’t understand, they give me a piece of paper to sign thinking that I'm going home. And when I turn around, the home was for me the handcuffs in my hands,” said Rosario.
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The lawsuit argues the police officers and fire investigators who worked on the case fabricated evidence in order to quickly “solve” a high-profile tragedy. In particular, they claim they fabricated a false narrative that Rosario and two others threw a burning Molotov cocktail into the building despite no physical evidence of the use of an incendiary device or of fire accelerant present at the scene.
“Back in the day, you would have firefighters and police, they'd go into a building and say, yeah, it looks like arson to us. And then they would find a suspect. We know that that was junk science,” said Loevy-Reyes. “And what we found out in this case and again, we intended to present this to a jury was, Lowell had what was called an arson squad, and they were in constant communication with the insurance industry, which did provide approximately funding for the arson squad and it was in the insurer's best interest if arson was found, because they wouldn't have to pay.”
Rosario said the hardest part of his incarceration was seeing the heartbreak it caused his mother.
“My mother traveled from Puerto Rico not knowing the language, getting into Massachusetts, getting into the prison system, not knowing. Every time that my mother asked me, when you coming home, I explain to my mom, I'm doing life sentence, I don’t know, but she don’t understand that,” said Rosario. “The last time that she went to prison and asked me, when you coming home because this is going to be my last visit to you. And I can see in her eyes they pop out want to cry and to see her go out of the visiting room knowing that my mom, I’m never gonna see her again.”
His mother passed away in 2007, seven years before he would be released.
The $13 million settlement comes two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.
“One of the things for me to be able to continue moving forward is basically to learn how to forgive,” said Rosario. “Because when you forgive, you liberate the person that do damage to you and I learned that. I forgive because if I don’t forgive who do wrong to me then my life will be always in prison. And I don't want that I want to be free.”
Since he was released in 2014, Rosario has worked to help others who were wrongfully convicted and people transitioning back into society from prison. He says he plans to continue that work.
“What I would like to do is basically trying to help those that need help. Right from the beginning, that's what I'm trying to do. It was trying to help.”