Letting the DA skate

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 20, 2007

Blame the people
When he’s not blaming his failures on his budget, on witness intimidation, or on STOP SNITCHIN’ T-shirts, Conley usually resorts to publicly insulting the jurors who fail to convict in high-profile trials. He did it again earlier this month after the separate acquittals of homicide defendants Ablode Ahiahornu and Arthur Miles. “I’m not blaming jurors,” Conley tells the Phoenix — before complaining, yet again, about the jury’s decisions and unreasonably high standards of proof.

This has become a regular routine for Conley, one that shocks and appalls many local criminal-justice professionals. “I’ve never heard of a DA criticizing a jury. It’s outrageous,” says one Boston defense attorney, who, like many others — including current and former police and prosecutors — asked not to be named so as to avoid harming his relationship with the notoriously thin-skinned Conley. (“He sees conspiracies against him everywhere,” says one prosecutor.)

Conley was even more aggressive toward the jury for Marquis Nelson and Joseph Cousin, the two young men accused of killing 10-year-old Trina Persad in June 2002. Persad’s slaying, which occurred while Conley was still running against Honan, was the first high-profile murder committed on his watch and, arguably, the most notorious crime committed to date under his tenure. (Conley’s highest-profile cases, those of John Geoghan and other Boston priests accused of molestation, involved crimes committed years earlier.) The pressure to win a conviction in the Persad case was so high, prosecutors agreed to effectively immunize their key witness against prosecution for his admitted role in helping to plan, execute, serve as lookout, and steal the car used for the shooting.

The jury acquitted Nelson, and, although claiming to be deadlocked, agreed to continue deliberating on Cousin. The next morning, Conley’s office informed the judge that at least four jurors had criminal histories, contrary to their answers on jury questionnaires. The judge declared a mistrial and Conley held a press conference where he blasted the jurors, accused them of deliberately undermining the criminal-justice process, and vowed to prosecute them.

Yet he never brought those charges, and has never presented any evidence that the jurors did anything deliberate, according to Willie Davis, Cousin’s attorney.

Conley’s office also has refused to explain why it suddenly ran criminal-record checks on the jurors, in the hours between Nelson’s acquittal and the resumption of jury deliberations on Cousin — an unprecedented interference in the jury process just as things seemed to be going against the prosecution, critics say. Conley declined to discuss the matter with the Phoenix, because the Cousin mistrial is currently under review by the Supreme Judicial Court.

The attack on the four Nelson/Cousin jurors — all of whom are black — only increased existing tensions between Conley and many black Bostonians who had opposed his appointment to the job in 2002. Conley has been criticized for failing to bring charges against police officers for fatal shootings of citizens, and for making little progress — despite frequent promises — in diversifying his staff.

After the Cousin trial, Conley’s office began conducting background checks on jurors when allowed, and, in more than one murder trial, has used the information to remove the only black male juror who had been seated. Just this month, too, Conley suggested that, to solve a shortage of jurors in Suffolk County, they should import some from the suburbs — a plan critics see as yet another attempt to stack the panels with white jurors.

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