Letting the DA skate

Violence rises, prosecutions plummet, and nobody points a finger at Boston’s top law-enforcement officer
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 20, 2007


Losing record
Suffolk DA Dan Conley says the low homicide-arrest rate in recent years is the result of a more careful process of developing evidence — a change made largely in reaction to revelations of wrongful convictions in older cases. “We don’t ever want to go back to the days when people were arrested on the basis of hunches and street rumor,” he says.

But to date, there is little evidence that Conley is developing better cases than his predecessors did.

In Boston, of those murders that have taken place since Conley became DA, 61 have resulted in a trial verdict or guilty plea. Of these, prosecutors won a first- of second-degree murder conviction in nearly half, and a manslaughter or lesser charge in almost a third, with the remaining 20 percent ending in acquittal.

Compare that with the previous administration. The biggest change: fewer manslaughter pleas, more acquittals. Our chart suggests that more Boston murder defendants, looking at the strength of the DA’s case against them, are willing to take their chances in court — and they’re winning.

BEFORE CONLEY (1998–February 2002)

First degree  30%
Second degree  18%
Manslaughter  40%
Acquittal    13%

UNDER CONLEY (since February 2002)
First degree  33%
Second degree  16%
Manslaughter  28%
Lesser charge   3%
Acquittal   20%

Source: Suffolk County District Attorney, Phoenix research

In Boston’s sharp-elbowed political world, when anything goes wrong — whether it’s the stalled waterfront development, rising school-dropout rates, or post-playoff rioting — assigning blame usually takes top priority. Everyone in public office can expect a certain amount of criticism, some fair and some not.

But District Attorney (DA) Dan Conley is a rare phenomenon: a Boston pol who is seemingly inculpable. That’s especially striking, given that he’s served as the city’s top elected law-enforcement official during a depressing regression into high homicide rates, widespread fear of violence, dismal arrest rates, and high-profile acquittals.

Even a Boston Globe article this month that examined a continuing lack of convictions in Boston murder cases, pointed fingers at jurors, television shows, court delays — everywhere except the prosecutor’s office.

As the city’s homicide rates have soared, Conley has largely escaped the criticism that has been leveled at Mayor Tom Menino, three Boston Police Department (BPD) commissioners, and community and religious leaders. “He’s always skated,” says one City Hall insider. “He’s always left out of the blame.”

To top it all off, he ran unopposed this past year for re-election to his second four-year term as Suffolk County DA.

Some argue that the prosecutor’s office can’t be fairly criticized for rising violence and falling arrest percentages, a view Conley shares. “We’re lawyers,” he said in an interview with the Phoenix this week. “We don’t have the power of arrest. We don’t patrol neighborhoods.”

But in Massachusetts, DAs are, by statute, responsible for homicide investigations, and in Suffolk County they help direct the show from the start. In fact, many local observers now agree that the rise in violence has been fueled in part by the low arrest and conviction rates in those investigations, a combination that has left murderers on the street, and removed the fear of doing time for their crimes.

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