“We have some drivers that have had COVID-19, so we face that every day”: An Interview with Dennis Maher

In March, 1984, 23-year-old paratrooper Dennis Maher was wrongly convicted of a spree of rapes that took place in Middlesex County, Massachusetts several months earlier. In 2003, after 19 years of proclaiming his innocence, DNA evidence exonerated him of each and every one of the rapes attributed to him, and Maher was freed. Today, Maher is a 60-year-old essential worker ― a diesel mechanic for the Massachusetts Department of Sanitation ― where he daily risks exposure to COVID-19.

Amanda Knox 

How are you dealing with quarantine?

Dennis Maher 

I’ve been working. They cut down on hours. That’s about it. We’re isolated from the drivers. We have some drivers that have had COVID-19, so we face that every day.

Amanda Knox 

Do you mind quickly describing your wrongful conviction and exoneration story? 

Dennis Maher 

On November 17th,1983, I was walking down the street in Lowell, Massachusetts, and I was stopped by the police. They brought me down to the police station and started questioning me. “Where were you on the night on November 16th?” Where were you the night of November 17th?” Finally I said, “What are you questioning me about?” They said, “We’re questioning you about a rape and an attempted rape that happened on the night of November 16th and November 17th.” Then I went to my first lineup. I was IDed and then I went to another line up, and I was IDed again. On the night of January 5th, 1984, I was arrested again. And I asked the cops, “What am I under arrest for?” She said, “You’re under arrest for aggravated rape in Ayer.” So January 5th is when my prison time actually started. In March of ’84, I went to trial, and I was found guilty. The judge asked me, “Mr. Maher, do you have anything to say?” Being a 23-year-old soldier, I said, “Your Honor, if you call this justice, I think you and your judicial system are a crock of shit.” So he sentenced me to 20 to 30 years. Then in April I had another trial for the crimes in Ayer and I was sentenced to life in prison. I was found to be a sexually dangerous person. Now, this whole process, I’m going through the appeals, filing motions and everything else I could get done. In 1993, I wrote the Innocence Project a letter asking them for help. I thought I was going to die as an innocent person in prison. And then one day, I’m walking back from work, and one of my block officers said, “Maher, you have an attorney visit.” I said, “I haven’t had an attorney in 13 years.” He says, “Well, you have one now.” So I went upstairs and I met Aliza Kaplan and Karen Burns. They came in and met me, as you can imagine it was quite emotional. And they found the evidence that the court officer said had been lost or destroyed. So they sent it to Dr. Blake in California. He’s one of the foremost forensic scientists in the country. On Christmas Eve, 2002, I call her and I said, “Where have you been?” She goes, “Oh, we were out celebrating. We had two exclusions today.” An exclusion means the DNA doesn’t match. She goes, “One of them was yours.” Which was quite emotional. So, Martha Coakley, who was the Middlesex County District Attorney, called Aliza and said, “Do you want to make a deal? We’ll give him time served.” And Aliza just flipped out and said, “No, we’re going to prove he’s innocent.” So on April Fool’s Day, I called Aliza and she says, “When do you want to go home?” Now this is April Fool’s Day. I said, “Are you serious?” She goes, “Dead serious.” So on April 3, 2003, I had my last strip search and went to court. Aliza read her motion. Then the DA says, “We’re not going to go against this.” So the judge said, “All I have to do is sign these papers and he can leave.” And they both said, “Yes, your Honor.” So he said, “I’m signing the papers. Mr. Maher, you can leave.” 

Amanda Knox  

After how long?

Dennis Maher  

19 years, two months, and 29 days. So as I was leaving, the senior court officer comes over and says, “JW Carney would like to speak with you.” Now, this is the DA that prosecuted me in 1984. So we met behind closed doors, and he apologized in tears and asked for forgiveness. 

Amanda Knox  

How did he have that change of heart?

Dennis Maher 

He had his doubts from the beginning, but there was nothing he could do about it. 

Amanda Knox

So what was it like to re-enter the world after 19 years? 

Dennis Maher 

When I got home, I went on the computer and got buried in porn. So I shut the computer off. I panicked. But I went for walks to deal with cars, the smell of exhaust, crossing streets, talking to people going in the stores. I had to start looking for a job. You know, when I was in prison, I had to do a release plan. This is what I got to write: I get out of prison through DNA, I take two months off, I look for a job, I meet a woman, we get married, we have kids. This is the way it worked: I got out of prison through DNA, I took two months off, I got a job with waste management, which I still work for, I met Melissa online, we got married, and we have two kids.

Amanda Knox 

So you have been out in the world during the pandemic every day. How is that for you?

Dennis Maher

I’m a diesel mechanic, so I work on the trucks. So anything that the drivers get exposed to, I get exposed to. One of the drivers’ wife had COVID-19, and he didn’t tell anybody until like a week later. They didn’t know what to do. They had all the trucks sprayed for antiseptics. They try and separate us from the drivers as much as possible. Because if the mechanic goes down, then everything goes down. Because there’s no one to fix the trucks.

Amanda Knox 

Are you worried? 

Dennis Maher  

The first time we talked about it, I said to my boss, “Did the genie get out of the bottle?” He just looked at me and says, “No.” By that I mean, did a germ get out of a lab for germ warfare. That’s the first thing that went through my head.

Amanda Knox 

You’re a military man.

Dennis Maher  

Right? So that’s what I thought. And he just looked at me, because he was in the military, too, and he goes, “No.” So who knows? We all work in a shop, so sometimes you get to work side by side on trucks. If you’re pulling a 150 pound cylinder, you’re not pulling it up by yourself. Someone’s going to help you. So we’re in close proximity. 

Amanda Knox 

Are you wearing masks? Are you wearing gloves? 

Dennis Maher 

We always wear gloves. We just started wearing masks when we leave the shop. So we’re doing what we can.

Amanda Knox 

Do you feel that your prison experience prepared you in any way for what is happening right now?

Dennis Maher 

More the military.

Amanda Knox  

How did the military prepare you for this time period?

Dennis Maher  

Well, we always trained about it, what would happen if a chemical attack happened, if a biological attack happened. These are the ones that scared me, germ warfare, because it’s silent. You really can’t see it coming. You have to think about how is it going to affect us? I had a physical about a couple of weeks after COVID-19 started, and I said, “Do you think this is a germ warfare thing?” He goes, “Not really, because a germ warfare is going to be more of an Ebola or something like that.”

Amanda Knox 

Interesting.

Dennis Maher  

But you see a lot of people freaking out, you know?

Amanda Knox 

Are you worried about bringing something home to your family?

Dennis Maher 

I think we take enough precautions at work, as much as we can. Can it happen? Yeah. I’ve thought about it. How would I deal with it? If I get exposed to it and I gotta isolate, am I going to go live on the third floor? Because I don’t want to expose kids to it. I don’t want to expose Melissa to it. 

Amanda Knox 

Does that worry you or do you kind of plow ahead and hope for the best?

Dennis Maher  

I plow ahead and hope for the best. Massachusetts has one of the highest rates in the country. We’ve had 4,700 deaths and 75,000 people have had it, and I sometimes go into Boston, because we do the hospitals. If their can comes in, then we’ll be exposed to it there. 

Amanda Knox 

Right. 

Dennis Maher  

Even though we steam clean everything, it’s still a possibility.

Amanda Knox 

What are your ultimate thoughts on this whole pandemic?

Dennis Maher 

I think some people are way overdoing it. I think some people are not taking it seriously enough. Melissa was in Walmart today, and a guy says to her, “My daughter’s a microbiologist. She said this is all bullshit.” 4,700 dead is not bullshit. You know? So what are we gonna do? I’ve never seen the country this shut down.

Amanda Knox 

Me neither. And I do worry about it coming back in the fall and worse, because it’s very human for people to believe what they want to believe. And to have to sit uncomfortably with the idea that this sucks and it’s gonna suck for a lot longer, is something that people don’t want to emotionally accept. I don’t know. I wonder if being a formerly incarcerated person, and especially an innocent incarcerated person, you never know what’s going to happen to you, nothing is certain anymore, and you have to sort of plan for the best, and plan for the worst, and plan for everything in between, or you’ll go crazy. 

Dennis Maher 

You also have to think outside the box. Another thing I thought about was, one of my army buddies had COVID-19. He had a hard time. He was on oxygen, but he made it through.

Amanda Knox 

How long was he hospitalized?

Dennis Maher 

He was in a hospital for three or four days. But he had to do oxygen treatments at home. He had a hard time sleeping because he’d wake up in the middle of the night choking. His oxygen would go under 85%.

Amanda Knox 

That’s so scary. It’s like drowning.

Dennis Maher

Yeah. And, you know, I was freaked out because he’s one of my army friends, and we had a tight bond in the military. That one really brought it to my attention. Because that’s the way it is. He’s a friend and he was sick. 

Amanda Knox 

Covid got personal.

Dennis Maher

Yeah. Really quick.