Letting the DA skate

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 20, 2007

Earlier this year, the National District Attorneys Association even produced a report — which contains a quote from Conley, who is on the board of directors — arguing that a DA should be judged not just on conviction rates, but also on arrest rates and crime prevention.

In other big cities, including New Orleans, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, district attorneys have come under fire when violent crime has risen and arrest rates have dropped. San Francisco’s DA has endured intense public criticism — from high-ranking police officials, no less — for those reasons. And candidates in this past year’s DA election in Dallas debated means of reversing similar trends.

Yet those cities haven’t suffered anything close to the setbacks Boston has since Conley took office in February 2002.

Boston has averaged 62 murders a year during Conley’s tenure, up 45 percent from the previous five years. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of murders committed in Boston have ended with an arrest — down from 55 percent before Conley took office, and well below the national average of more than 60 percent — and that number’s falling. But the failures in Boston courtrooms keep piling up. (See sidebar.)

Conley insists on being included in any positive press conference, but is nowhere to be seen when bad news arises, city insiders say.

Other detractors maintain that Conley — while honest and well-intentioned — plays it safe to avoid controversy that would be bad for his career.

That caution has its price. According to some BPD detectives, his office leaves dangerous criminals on the street by being gun-shy about bringing charges without rock-solid evidence. And tough-on-crime community activists say Conley’s office pleads too many murder charges down to manslaughter in order to avoid the embarrassment of acquittals. Meanwhile, defense attorneys and civil-liberties advocates say Conley has been unwilling to criticize police and force them to change their worst habits. And close observers claim he rewards loyalty over competence in his office — he cleaned house of Ralph Martin loyalists early on, regardless of their skills, and has rarely cut anyone loose since then, despite his office’s anemic results.

‘Second-luckiest person’
One local officeholder calls Conley “the second-luckiest person in public life in Boston,” following only Menino. Even his fans agree that Conley is a poor politician. He lacks charisma, is a barely adequate public speaker, and, in all his years of public service, has yet to do anything that stands out in voters’ minds. Yet he has handily, and fortuitously, climbed to the top of the local law-enforcement ladder.

It was in 1993, when Menino had the mayor’s office dumped in his lap by a departing Ed Flynn, that Conley first won elected office, staving off weak opposition to replace Menino as Hyde Park’s Boston city councilor. That followed a quiet career trajectory that he began as a Suffolk County prosecutor in what is now seen by many as the worst of times in that office — a period in the late 1980s and early ’90s under glad-hander Newman Flanagan that saw the overzealous prosecution of black suspects, and a number of wrongful prosecutions that came to light much later.

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