His Record Cleared after Wrongful Conviction, Dennis Maher Knows He has Much to Live For
Aug. 19, 2012
TEWKSBURY — Nineteen years, two months and 29 days.
That’s how long Dennis Maher of Tewksbury was locked up in prison after being wrongly convicted of two rapes and a sexual assault in Lowell and Ayer he did not commit.
In 2003, DNA evidence unearthed by the New York-based Innocence Project cleared him of the crimes. At age 42, he was released from prison.
But it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon — well after getting the military to reinstate his honorable standing and after the city of Lowell and the town of Ayer settled wrongful-incarceration lawsuits that won him millions of dollars — that Maher could fully celebrate a final milestone in his long journey to find justice.
In July, the courts finally expunged his records of arrests and charges associated with the crimes he was found innocent of nearly a decade ago. Maher, a mechanic for Waste Management for the past nine years, and his wife Melissa celebrated the moment by throwing a backyard barbecue party at his home on Saturday afternoon with 60 to 70 of his family and friends.
“My first thought is: It took too long,” said his sister, Ann Bishop-Siquera, said about finally clearing her brother’s name. “It should have happened a long time ago. But it’s great that it’s completely over — and now he can really start living.”
Maher and Melissa, who he met not long after he was released from prison, have two children together — their son Joshua, 7, and daughter, Aliza, 6 (who is named after former Innocence Project attorney Aliza Kaplan, who helped to free Maher from prison).
A paralegal before deciding to be a stay-at-home mom, Melissa said what drew her most to Maher in the beginning was “his honesty.”
“It was a long process and I’m glad it’s almost ended,” she said. “And he’s everything I could have imagined and then some. He’s never changed and he’s very humbled by all of it.”
His mother, Lucy, and his sister, Ann, as well as his three brothers, Bill, Don and John, as well as slew of nieces, nephews and long-time friends also mingled happily at the celebration. His father, Donat, has died, and Maher said one of his biggest regrets is his dad never got to meet his little girl.
Surrounded by his family at a two-story home in North Tewksbury with a big backyard, Maher said he is relieved to have this last cloud lifted finally from his record.
“But I don’t dwell on the past,” he said.
Though records in such cases are usually expunged, they weren’t in Maher’s case. And since the arrests and charges still used to come up on his record, getting a passport and traveling out of the country was very difficult. “Too many hoops to jump through,” he said.
For that reason, he and his family have never traveled outside of the country, although they want to go places like Niagara Falls or Toronto to visit friends. But they now plan to do so, later this year.
“It started in 1983,” Maher said. “And now, it’s nearly 30 years later — and it’s closure.”
In 1983, Maher, a former Army paratrooper, was stationed at the former Fort Devens and working as a mechanic when he was arrested. He was convicted in 1984 of two rapes and a sexual assault of three women. He received a 12- to 20-year state prison sentence before being declared innocent by the courts.
In all those years in prison, “I always knew I was innocent, anyways,” he said, although he often wondered if he’d die in prison.
Gretchen Bennett, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, praised Maher for his positive attitude in the face of unfathomable challenges — as well as his continuing commitment to helping others who are wrongly convicted of crimes. He continues to speak to young lawyers to put a face to the problem of wrongful convictions and improper defense of the innocent. And he has helped to lobby for improved state laws to protect those who are wrongly convicted.
“Dennis is an amazing success story,” Bennett said. “It’s a miracle to be sitting here on this beautiful day and with his beautiful family.”
“To go through what he went through and reconstruct his life is amazing,” she said, adding that Maher has since attained the American dream.
For his part, Maher said focusing on the positive helped him build his life back after having lost so much.
“It was the outlook I chose to take,” he said. “I could be a bitter and miserable person who expects that the world give me everything. But what happened, I put in the past.
“Now, you’ve seen my wife, my family, my house and my children,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any of that if I’d gone the other way.”