On a Day of Atonement, Boston Pays a Nine-Year Debt to Lonely Widow Patricia Bowden

On Jan. 29, 1975, Edward Holland and Dennis McKenna, partners in a plainclothes anticrime unit of the Boston police, revved up their unmarked car and prepared for action. Normally on the lookout for pickpockets and purse snatchers, they had been staring that night through a pelting rainstorm at a potentially bigger catch: a blue Buick Electra, 119 yards away, whose description and plates closely resembled a getaway car from a grocery store robbery earlier that day. After a man entered the Electra, McKenna raced the police car forward, braked to a halt, and the cops jumped out, their guns aimed at the Electra’s driver. What happened in the next five seconds is still unclear. But one thing is certain: after a spurt of gunfire, the driver, hospital worker James Bowden, 25, lay dead from three bullet wounds.

In many ways, James Bowden’s killing seemed little different on the surface from the 500 to 700 such fatal shootings by the police that occur across the country each year. Like about half the victims, James Bowden was black and, as in most cases, police reports justified the killing. But two weeks ago, after nine years of legal battles and extra-legal delays, the case of James Bowden came to a very unusual end. In one of the first successful civil cases challenging a police killing, Bowden’s widow, Patricia, 36, received an $843,498 award from the City of Boston. Patricia and her children, Eurina, 13, and Jamil, 9, finally had compensation—and official recognition that James Bowden died an innocent man.

As recently as last August, Patricia Bowden’s chances of collecting what she’d won in civil court seemed small. But a book called Deadly Force: The True Story of How a Badge Can Become a License to Kill changed all that. Written by Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., the son of Patricia’s lawyer, Deadly Force put the Bowden case into national headlines and, however they viewed it, fired up Bostonians. The police once threatened to strike when the O’Donnells, using the publicity, pressured them harder for Patricia’s settlement, and even now the case could force Boston’s police commissioner to resign. More important, the affair has raised an old issue for national debate: How can justice be impartially served when the police are suspected of killing the wrong man?

In Boston, a city with some of the strictest guidelines for police shootings, an investigation of James Bowden’s death began immediately. The officers reported that Bowden tried to run them down and “displayed” a firearm. After a gun was found near Bowden’s car, the police later that night identified his Buick again as the getaway car reported from the robbery. They also showed his corpse to a grocery store employee, who couldn’t identify Bowden as the holdup man. The next day, the employee, accompanied by the store owner, changed his mind. He said Bowden had robbed the grocery, though he later retracted that statement in court.

Such charges made Patricia Bowden angry. “The night it happened, I called up the police and cussed them out,” she remembers. “They kept telling me my husband had committed a robbery. I kept telling them no. I knew he would never do anything like that.” When no one listened, Patricia sought a lawyer. One asked too much money; others turned her away. Then, a month after the shooting, she met Lawrence O’Donnell Sr., now 63, a trial attorney best known for arguing the defense in 1956’s Brink’s robbery trial. A Boston cop himself for seven years, O’Donnell volunteered his services to Patricia—with payment to be determined, if he won, by a judge.

The defendants in Mrs. Bowden’s civil suit were the two officers who had shot her husband, although the city customarily pays judgments against cops who are sued. Accepting the right of police to defend themselves against armed criminals, O’Donnell needed to prove that James Bowden, who did not have a criminal record, posed no such threat. In court, with great flamboyance, he made some harsh accusations: that the policemen didn’t check Bowden’s identity with enough care; that they themselves created a violent situation and then used their guns needlessly; and that the police force staged a cover-up to hide the tragic blunder. Specifically, O’Donnell and his lawyer son Michael, now 40, introduced the following startling evidence:

•The police failed to cite an autopsy giving Bowden’s height of 5’4½”, a full eight inches shorter than that of the robbery suspect.

•Bowden’s Buick was light blue and two-door. The Buick reported at the robbery was dark blue and four-door.

•Bowden’s license plate was 4F-6838. The plate on the getaway car was 4F-6368.

•The store robber used a revolver. The gun found at the scene of Bowden’s shooting was a semiautomatic pistol.

•That gun was found lying 204 feet from Bowden’s car in a spot where it would have been impossible for the dying man to throw it; the O’Donnells accused the police of planting the gun.

•Bowden’s co-workers in the Boston City Hospital maintenance department swore he was at work at the time of the robbery.

•Though it had never been reported as malfunctioning, the police radio recorder turned up blank for the day of Bowden’s killing. Therefore, all reports from the scene were gone.

“The police had a massive interest to protect. If you used the Marquis of Queensberry rules, you would have been steamrolled,” says O’Donnell, in defense of the red-faced courtroom shouting matches he provoked. After a 1980 court upheld the original 1978 jury ruling in Patricia Bowden’s favor, presiding Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. said of the O’Donnells: “There are few who could have conducted the case with the same vigor and dedication that they brought to this one.” So saying, Judge Garrity awarded the lawyer the highest fee ever given for such a case: $200,000, with interest until the payment was actually made.

Even after the final court decision, however, the police and the city, under the regime of Mayor Kevin White, refused to pay the $250,000 (plus interest) awarded to Patricia Bowden or the lawyers’ fee. Last summer, the O’Donnells made a final effort to get Mrs. Bowden’s money—or some part of it. To prove their resolve, they took various steps including legal action, threatening seizure of the home of Dennis McKenna’s wife, Barbara—a mother of six who had been separated from her husband before the Bowden killing. The police reacted with outrage. In September, they threatened their strike if the city did not pay Mrs. Bowden to save Mrs. McKenna’s home.

Some police leaders say that White and Police Commissioner Joseph Jordan refused because of a grudge against the lawyers, and the O’Donnells certainly didn’t ease the situation. Lawrence Jr. once said, “There are people who have gone to jail for far less than what Commissioner Jordan did. The people who covered up Watergate only hid a burglary—Joseph Jordan covered up a homicide.” Lawrence Sr. added, “I’m hated by Jordan and Kevin White and I deem that a tribute. If I had their good will, it would be a disgrace.”

After growing up in blue-collar Dorchester, a neighborhood they shared with many Boston policemen, the O’Donnells broke a taboo and lost a lot of friends when they defended Mrs. Bowden against two Irish cops. Lawrence Jr. found himself a target of animosity before he even knew about the shooting. The only non-lawyer of five O’Donnell children, Lawrence, now 32, was manhandled in 1975 by a policeman who was a witness in the Bowden trial. The officer gave him a concussion, booked him for disorderly conduct, and, says O’Donnell, offered to drop charges if Lawrence Sr. dropped the Bowden case. A court threw out the charges and later, after filing suit against the police, the O’Donnells received $13,000 in damages and legal fees for the incident. Nonetheless, some officers continue to say O’Donnell provoked the scene.

The police still maintain their innocence in every aspect of the Bowden case; no action has been taken against the two officers, whom the department still maintains acted justifiably; and the police have never officially stated that Bowden was the wrong man. In response to the O’Donnell accusations, Commissioner Jordan says, “They’re just trying to sell more of that book of fiction.” Patrolman’s Union vice president Don Murray is even harsher: “We have a shortage of paper towels and toilet paper. Maybe you’ll bring the book for us to use.”

Last fall, Patricia Bowden averted the threatened police strike by agreeing to defer her claim until a new mayor was elected in November to replace Kevin White. Two weeks ago, Raymond Flynn, who took office in January, personally delivered payment to Patricia, including her lawyers’ fees. He also asked for the resignation of Commissioner Jordan (who underwent treatment last September for a drinking problem), although Flynn can force the resignation only through court proceedings. Patricia Bowden hopes for one other staff change. Dennis McKenna, the man who shot her husband and later missed at least one trial hearing because of alcohol problems of his own, now works a beat that includes her neighborhood.

Was it worth nine years of struggle for such an outcome? Patricia says yes. “I couldn’t have put it aside and moved on,” she says. “No way. Each time I talk to someone about it, my feelings get stronger.” Now a computer operator, Mrs. Bowden plans to pay for her children’s education and maybe return to school herself. She also says that her victory is not a happy ending. “There’s really nothing to celebrate. My husband is still dead.”

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