January 14, 2010
Something about MarthaBy Rosslyn Smith
I have been watching the Massachusetts Senate race with interest. There is a lot more going on there than a backlash against the Democrats in Washington on health care, or even Coakley's sense of entitlement to the "Kennedy seat." Close elections ultimately tend to be decided by a segment of voters who rely on their gut instincts about the two people in the running, not the issues. I suspect that this will be especially true next Tuesday because voters know that if Coakley is elected, she will likely be their senator for life.
I write this because there seems to be something about Martha -- something that is making a segment of Massachusetts voters who normally vote Democrat pause to consider whether that is such a good idea. My wariness does not come from Coakley's stance on health care, the war on terror, her sense of divine entitlement, or even her howler that having a sister who lives abroad constitutes foreign policy experience. It is based on Coakley's record as a prosecutor in Middlesex county, first as a staff attorney and later as the elected District Attorney.
It has been my experience that voters who don't blink at the prospect of pulling the lever for a famously corrupt politician often show more reluctance when it comes to rewarding arbitrary or abusive prosecutors with higher office. I suspect this is because while voters often have problems visualizing how they are personally injured by politicians on the take, they have no problem imagining themselves as the victim of a false accusation. It is noteworthy that throughout this campaign, the Boston Globe has run articles about the more controversial moves in Coakley's prosecutorial career. These cases are not news to the voters. They were all raised by her Republican opponent in her 2006 race for Attorney General. That they are still of interest suggests deep and lingering doubts not about Coakley's politics, but about her character and her judgment. Voters, after all, also tend to be a lot more careful about the type of people they elect to be governors and U.S. senators than they are about whom they elect to offices such as Attorney General or Secretary of State. Scott Brown may have underscored this uneasiness in the debate with his sharp retort in one exchange that he was not a defendant in her courtroom.
So what is it about Martha's career as a prosecutor that makes some people nervous? Two particularly high-profile cases involving children were her route to fame: the 1997 murder trial of au pair Louise Woodward -- or the death of the child left in her care -- and the 2002 prosecution against serial child molester Father John Geoghan. But Coakley has also left considerable controversy in her wake in her zeal to prosecute high-profile sex offenders, including a reliance on junk science.
Four cases in particular have raised questions about Coakley's judgment and zeal. First, seven years before Coakley convicted Geoghan, she cut a plea bargain with him.
Coakley's reluctance in pursuing Geoghan may be attributed to the high-profile case against another priest that she lost in 1994. Father Paul Manning was accused of molesting an eleven-year-old boy. In the Manning case, not only had the single victim recanted before the trial, but Manning had the full support of his parishioners and an impressive slate of character witnesses willing to testify that the recanted allegations were simply preposterous. The principal witness was another priest whose testimony did not dent the waves of support for Manning. In contrast, by 1995, Geoghan had been entirely removed from parish duties even though he was several years shy of retirement age. Given the declining number of parish priests, this alone spoke volumes about what might be in Geoghan's past.
This looks like after getting burned by going ahead with a weak case against Manning, the twice-shy Coakley bargained away a much stronger case against Geoghan rather than risk another loss. Then she compromised herself as a prosecutor by agreeing to join the commission Boston Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law created to explore ways to prevent abuse. In 2004, as the second Geoghan case moved forward, she resigned from the commission. Coakley's 1995 decision is widely criticized by activists, who note that even if a criminal prosecution fails or results in a conviction on lesser charges, it puts parents on notice in ways that may prevent future assaults.
Second, in 2002, Coakley's office also began the prosecution of former Catholic priest and gay activist Paul Shanley, then age 74, on charges of a rape that allegedly occurred two decades earlier. Initially, four accusers came forward with allegations against Shanley. Coakley's office dropped two from the case as not credible witnesses. The third dropped out after being cross-examined at a preliminary hearing. The sole acccuser to testify at trial said he had recovered his memory of the abuse, which he claimed happened over several years, when he heard about allegations against other area priests. Coakley's office used a pair of controversial experts on the subject, Dr. Daniel Brown and Dr. James Chu, to develop and pursue the recovered memory evidence. At the time of the trial, the accuser, who had a history of troubled relationships and substance abuse, was widely praised by Coakley, victim groups, and the press for his courage in coming forward. The Boston media, which had remained oblivious to the story of priests molesting altar boys for decades, seemed to go out of their way to sensationalize the case. In fact, Shanley was one of the few priests criminally prosecuted for abuse dating from the 1960s and '70s, because as luck had it, in 1990, he had left the state of Massachusetts. That stopped the clock on the statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions. While the unsavory and controversial Shanley undoubtedly engaged in many illicit sex acts over the years, it is unlikely that he committed the acts that sent him to jail. This case has been widely criticized, both for the use of repressed memory evidence and the way Shanley served as a surrogate for the many priests who could not be criminally charged, as well as a catharsis for the decades of disinterest in the entire topic by the Boston establishment.
In an article about Shanley's appeal last year, Joan Wypijewski of the leftist Nation magazine had this to say about the case.
The Shanley case was not the first one in which the Middlesex District Attorney's office relied on junk science to promote hysteria. In 2001 Gerald Amirault, a defendant in the infamous Fells Acres Preschool sex abuse prosecution, was up for parole. Fells Acres is in Middlesex County. Before being elected District Attorney for Middlesex in 1999, Coakley had served as an assistant prosecutor for sex crimes. She was not part of the 1986 prosecution, but in 2001, she injected herself into the case in a major way. Even though the parole board unanimously recommended that Amirault's sentence be commuted, Coakley lobbied then-Governor Jane Swift against the action. Alleged victims from fifteen years earlier were featured at a press conference that had some in the psychology community outraged. Amirault stayed in jail. Coakley is quoted as saying this about the original prosecution in 2001:
Coakley seems to stands pretty much alone in that belief. Since the 1980s, a great many people in both the legal and psychological professions have come to regard the Fells Acres prosecutions as a modern-day witch trial. The first alleged victim, who was four, had lost bladder control on the day of the alleged incident. Gerald Amirault took him to a private room, stripped of the soiled clothing and changed him into clean clothes his parents had provided for such an eventuality. Somehow this incident came to the attention of a relative, who had himself been molested as a child and who questioned the boy. Soon child therapists swarmed over the other students, and mass hysteria took over, accompanied by a media that reported over and over the assurance that children never lie about such things. What was not acknowledged is that young children are highly suggestible. The case came to trial, and three people were convicted, even though there was no physical evidence to support the children's often preposterous allegations of abuse, or even instances of the type of acting-out behavior found in abused children that could be dated to before the child therapists arrived on the scene. Periodic internet polls in Massachusetts show that more than two-thirds of the respondents think the Amirault family was unjustly prosecuted and convicted.
Given the way the way the entire Fells Acre prosecution was subsequently discredited by both legal and psychiatric academics, what did Coakley do when Gerald Amirault was finally released on the last day of April, 2004? The former head of the Middlesex child abuse unit circled the wagons to protect her office and that handful of truly pitiable people who believe that something terrible must have happened to them because so-called child advocates infected them with their own sick fantasies.
Despite Coakley's admission that she could not find evidence that Amirault was a sexually dangerous person, upon his release, Amirault was classified as a level-three sex offender, which marks him as being at a high risk to "reoffend." Personally, I'd love to ask Coakley if she thinks Amirault is going to dress up as a clown and sodomize four-year-olds with his foot-long butcher's knife in that magical room where the most gruesome of tortures never leave a mark.
Coakley's insistence that Gerald Amirault remains a huge threat to public safety stands in stark contrast with her behavior in the case of a Somerfield police officer in an infant rape in 2005. Keith Winfield was convicted of two counts, each drawing a life sentence, by Coakley's successor as Middlesex DA in 2007. Despite ample physical evidence that there had been a horrific assault with a heated object (most likely a curling iron) and an admission by Winfield that he had been alone with the infant (his niece), it took months for her office to pursue the case. The indictment came only after the persistence of the girl's mother, including pressure from the lawyer she hired, who ended up being Coakley's Republican opponent in 2006.
Even more baffling was Coakley's recommendation after Winfield was finally indicted that he be released on his own recognizance because he was a first offender who presented no risk to the community. By then, investigators had learned that before the alleged assault, Winfield had been suspended from his job for disciplinary reasons and had lied about it, had concealed his evaluation for stress at a local hospital, had been treated for substance abuse, and had held a gun to his own head and threatened suicide!
At the time Winfield committed his assault, it was widely know that Coakley had her eyes on the Attorney General's office, yet she seemed to go out of her way to give a potential opponent ammunition to use against her by dragging her feet. This is strange, because in many ways, the elements here are a more gruesome but nonlethal variation of the Louise Woodward case: A trusted babysitter under stress lashed out at a helpless infant. This propensity to misplace priorities seems to be repeating itself today on the level of farce. While Scott Brown is hammering Coakley on the safest way to treat terrorists, her priority as state Attorney General has been to make sure that Massachusetts's rogue garden clubs report their activities.
No matter what you think of him, it is obvious that Ted Kennedy's death has created a vacuum in the Massachusetts Democratic Party that will take some time to fill. The level of talent thinned perceptibly on his passing. John Kerry has a completely undistinguished legislative career. Deval Patrick is a wildly unpopular governor. The most well-known member of the congressional delegation is not a legislative mover and shaker like former Speaker Tip O'Neill, but someone who earned his fame because of his sexual orientation. In this environment, Massachusetts voters have an interesting gut-level choice to make. They can allow the seat to go to a nice guy who just happens to be a Republican, secure in the knowledge that they can get rid of him if and when the Democrat machine shakes itself out of its current funk. Or they can reward a ruthlessly ambitious prosecutor of questionable judgment, with a penchant for modern-day witch hunts and a sense of entitlement to life tenure in the U.S. Senate. That years-old events in Coakley's career have been getting play in the left-wing Boston Globe suggests that many Democrats may be mulling over the first choice.