Wrongful First-Degree Murder Convictions in Massachusetts: Too Many and Justice Too Long Delayed

By Dirk Greineder

Over the last 14 years an eye-opening 7.2% (74 of an average of 1032) of all the Massachusetts prisoners convicted of first-degree murder sentenced to Life Without Parole ( LWOP) were ordered released by the courts because of wrongful convictions. 29 have been identified and have cumulatively served 911 years before release, for an average of 31 years each.

Nationally, concerns have been raised by the increasing numbers of defendants shown to have been wrongfully convicted. National rates of murder exonerations rose from 5-yr averages of 16/yr (1989-1994) to 69/yr (2017-2021. The number of years people wrongfully convicted of murder served before exoneration rose from 7 years in 1991 to 19 years in 2019 (1). While it has been very difficult to reliably estimate the actual rates of innocence and wrongful convictions, an estimate of 4.1% was determined for defendants sentenced to death whose convictions are subject to the most intensive and rigorous reviews(2). These experts also have proposed that rates of undetected innocence for those sentenced to LWOP must be notably higher than for those sentenced to death because they do not receive the same intensive search for errors.

Massachusetts capital first-degree murderers are sentenced to mandatory LWOP, assuring that they will die in prison. However, because of the limited post­ conviction resources available to LWOP prisoners, it is likely that many more than the documented 7% will have been wrongfully convicted. Further, the long delays, of over 30 years for those who do succeed, emphasize both the injustice and the difficulty of exposing these wrongful convictions.

Our findings support alarming conclusions that too many Massachusetts defendants have been wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder and that their LWOP sentences are especially inappropriate with rates of wrongful convictions surely well above 7%. This unjust and all too likely reality in present-day Massachusetts is a reason to call for fairer prosecutorial practices and to strengthen and expand Conviction Integrity Units. However, immutable death-in-prison LWOP sentences also need to be ended to offer second chances for those who may be falsely convicted as well as those who have matured and become rehabilitated. LWOP prisoners should become eligible for lifetime paroles after 25 years, a model already validated by the successful paroling of Massachusetts juvenile first-degree murderers(3).

  1. Gross SR, Possley M, Otterbourg K, Stephens K, Paredes JW, O’Brien B. Race and Wrongful Convictions In the United  States. National Registry of Exonerations. September 2022.
  2. Gross  SR, O’Brien B, Hu C.  & Kennedy  EH. Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death. PNAS. April 2014.
  3. Greineder, D. Lifers’ Group Fast Facts: Massachusetts Juveniles Convicted of First-Degree Murder Have Not Re-Offended When Paroled. March 2023. (available at www.realcostofprlsons.org/wrlting)

Dirk Greineder, currently at MCI-Norfolk, has been incarcerated since 2000.