Freed Inmate's Demise

Stephan Cowans walked out of Suffolk Superior Court with his cousins Melinda (front) and Rakisha Mitchell in 2004. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/File)

David Abel  |   GLOBE STAFF  |   March 3, 2008 
Before the joy turned into rage, before the drugs and souped-up cars, the former prisoner had modest ambitions. He talked about opening a hair salon, maybe an auto shop.
A father of two, Stephan Cowans told friends and family he would make up for the lost years, that he would earn their pride, and he hatched plans about moving with his relatives out West or down South.
Then the money came, a sum he could hardly imagine in his days as a petty thief in Roxbury, and the euphoria subsided into paranoia, the excitement of being back on the streets was lost to bouts of depression and an unpredictable fury, which surfaced whenever relatives suggested he get help.
Four years ago, Cowans walked out of state prison in Shirley a free man, cleared by DNA evidence after being convicted of shooting a Boston police officer and spending 6 1/2 years behind bars. It was an unlikely victory, one neither he nor his relatives expected, and within two years the city and state wrote him checks for a total of $3.7 million as compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Cowans had little more than a year to enjoy the money. Last October, at age 37, police found him shot to death in his new home in Randolph, which he bought several months before in an effort to escape the increasingly consuming fear he felt in Boston. Authorities have yet to find the killer.
"When he got out, he was the happiest man in the world," said his grandmother, Laura Lenard, who spent her savings trying to free him from prison. "But it didn't stay that way, and the money didn't help."
Relatives, friends, and lawyers who represented Cowans say the money took a toll, and some blame his sudden wealth for his death.
Near the end of his life, Cowans was telling them he wished he never received the money.
"Despite the best of intentions, money doesn't always make things better, and a lot of times it complicates things, and I think it did complicate things for Stephan," said David Hosp, an attorney who helped Cowans win a $3.2 million settlement from the city of Boston. "He definitely expressed to me a number of times a feeling of never knowing what people wanted from him, after he had enormous financial resources. I think it did make him a little less trusting, and I don't know that that helped the issues of him coming out of prison."
Since 1989, at least 213 inmates in the United States have been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence, but for many of them, the years in prison, the guilt by association, and the task of trying to piece together a future out of a broken past is overwhelming, according to the Life After Exoneration Program in Berkeley, Calif. A study by the program of 60 such freed prisoners in 2003 found nearly half suffer from depression or anxiety disorder, and about one-third have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
Adding a large sum of money to the already freighted equation can add to their troubles.
"Without the right support, giving an exoneree an immense amount of money is a recipe for disaster," said Heather Weigand, director of Life After Exoneration Program. "Any normal person who comes into a lot of money has to deal with new pressures from family and friends, and it takes a toll on those with the best mental health. When you're talking about exonerees, whose trust systems are broken and who haven't had the ability to make decisions, it makes their lives a lot more complicated. It can bring huge confusion and an overwhelming sense of desperation."
Cowans' odyssey began in 1997, when he was arrested in the shooting of Sergeant Gregory Gallagher in a Roxbury backyard. Police linked his fingerprint to evidence from the crime scene, and Cowans was eventually convicted of armed assault with intent to murder and sentenced to up to 50 years in prison. He was freed in January 2004 after the New England Innocence Project urged investigators to test DNA evidence from the crime scene. The DNA did not match Cowans', and when authorities reexamined the fingerprint from the scene, they found that did not match either.
On the day Cowans was released, his attorneys and family threw parties for him. It was sweet vindication, and he soaked up the freedom in a double-breasted suit and silver-striped tie. "He was laughing and joking and eating," his grandmother said. "The only thing they didn't have that he wanted was a lobster. He was as happy as I'd ever seen him."
But there was also a deep, underlying sadness, which did not take long to surface. Three months before he was freed from jail, his mother died, and it hurt that she never learned the truth.
Then there were his children, Thomas and Atara, who were ages 3 and 8 when he went to jail and 10 and 15 by the time he got out.
"Out of the blue, he would just start to cry," said Cortney Cowans, one of his nieces. "He missed so much."
At first, he had trouble sleeping. He often got up before dawn, as was the routine in prison, but he didn't know what to do with himself. He had enough of TV while behind bars, and he did not like being alone.
"He had an attention span of a ferret on crystal meth," said Sonya Cowans, his sister. "He was never like that before. He couldn't sit still."
He eventually got a job preparing food on the Spirit of Boston, a local pleasure cruise, but that did not last long. "He wouldn't listen to anybody who told him what to do," his sister said. "He had a problem with authority."
He began spending a lot of time with Zolie Bonner, a girlfriend, but things soured as he started using drugs. A year after his release, she said, he was taking crack multiple times a day. "It got so bad. That's what he did all the time," Bonner said. "Every time he went outside or stopped by the store, he was using. It was one of the only things that gave him a release."
The substance abuse led to physical abuse. Two years after he was freed from prison, Cowans was arrested on charges he gave Bonner a black eye by beating her with a boot and breaking windows and other property in her apartment.
He would be arrested three more times, twice for possessing crack and once for driving with a suspended license.
When the money came in 2006, he would go on shopping sprees for expensive clothes, shoes, hats, even top-of-the-line cars, sometimes taking along the girlfriends of other men. He favored Gucci and Prada, leather and suede coats, and bought more than 100 pairs of sneakers. He treated himself to a Mercedes CL500 and a BMW 745, which he had detailed and repainted, and paid more than $500,000 in cash for his four-bedroom, two-story Colonial-style house on a leafy cul-de-sac in Randolph, which he never furnished.
"He liked being the local celebrity," said Tanasia White, another niece. "But he started to get paranoid. Everyone was asking him for money. They knew what he had, and they wanted a piece."
The paranoia often emerged when he found himself near police, who had convinced him before he was freed that he shot Gallagher while sleepwalking.
He was afraid police were following him, that they wanted to frame him, plant evidence on him. His addictions fueled his fears. Any car that rolled by, any sound, he thought it was the police, Cortney Cowans said. "When the trees blew, he thought it was the police."
If he was driving and he saw a Ford Crown Victoria, the make of many of the city's police cruisers, he would floor his car to escape. "It was like NASCAR," Cortney Cowans said. "He would drive 120 mph. You could see the fear in his face. There wasn't any laughing. He was dead serious."
When relatives suggested he get help, he would explode. Once, when his niece suggested while driving with him that he consider therapy, Cowans slammed on the brakes. He threw cab money at her and told her to get out of his car.
"It went from little breakdowns to rage," Cortney Cowans said. "He would say, `I'm leaving, because you're going on fussing.' He didn't want to talk about anything that had to do with his sanity. If he thought you weren't on his side all the time, you were his enemy."
Last year, after the drug arrests and the other run-ins with the law, the team of lawyers from the New England Innocence Project who helped win his freedom finally persuaded Cowans to attend a treatment program in Arizona.
David Hosp took him to the airport, and the two had a long talk. "I said to him that if he took this chance to address the issues, he had the possibility of having a really rewarding life," Hosp said. "If he decided not to, I told him he wouldn't last very long. I said having a lot of money and a substance-abuse problem was not a good combination. He agreed. He understood."
That was the last time Hosp would see him.
Four months after Cowans started the program, he was kicked out for fighting with another client.
After coming home, he seemed increasingly remote to friends and family. They had a hard time reaching him, because he kept changing the number of his cellphone. He didn't want people tracking him.
People from all over the old neighborhood were hounding him for money.
"Kids who knew him from the second grade would come out of nowhere and ask him to borrow $50,000," his sister said. "There were drug dealers, murderers, and rapists after him for money. When he didn't give it to them, they were his enemies."
The day someone shot him in the head, he spent time teasing his girlfriend, picked up his BMW at an auto shop, and bought two pairs of sneakers at a store in Randolph. The killer either followed him or knew where he lived.
In a telephone interview, Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating declined to comment on whether investigators have made progress in the case.
"There's still a great deal of activity surrounding the investigation," he said. "I'm optimistic we'll find out who did this."
His friends and relatives insist they know what happened. There's a clear motive of the crime, they said: money.
"It was a robbery gone bad," his sister said. "They probably thought he had a big safe in the house."
In the end, to those closest to him, his death seemed inevitable.
"I wish he never received that money," his girlfriend said. "He was never the same afterward. He would have been here today if it wasn't for that."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.