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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.

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.

1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
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    Boston’s murder rate has doubled in five years — and may not have peaked yet. Here’s why.
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  Topics: Talking Politics , Criminal Trials , Trials , Murder and Homicide ,  More more >
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Letting the DA skate
Most of the twenty-three innocent men released from Massachusetts prisons in 2004 were from Suffolk County. AG Tom Reilly, DA Conley and the rest of the DAs then spent over two years before they issued their worthless whitewash of the false imprisonments. By the way, what public officials were ever held accountable for the false imprisonments? The miasma of corruption and cover up is now resulting in an inability to even staff juries in Suffolk County. Until the Commonwealth begins to cope with the corruption of its own legal system and holds those responsible accountable, the problem will only continue to get worse. The next step in this process is jury nullification, signaling the total collapse of the legal system in Massachusetts. Is it any wonder Conley’s office pleads so many murder charges down to manslaughter in order to avoid the embarrassment of acquittals? Is it any wonder so many people refuse to put their own lives on the line and “snitch” on the criminals for a corrupt and inept legal system, more likely to botch the case than win it?
By Krogy on 06/20/2007 at 9:29:09
Letting the DA skate
Once again, we see Suffolk County and the commonwealth attempting to address the symptoms instead of the problem. For exmaple, Write & wrong: Police get creative to battle surge in graffiti, // How dare these gang members start acting like cops? For as long as I can remember, cops have always taken great pride in never snitching on another cop. Perhaps the cops should consider leading by example. I suggest that every cop and law enforcement agency in the commonwealth take a snitch pledge. I doubt if there is a cop in the state who does not know of unethical or illegal misconduct by another cop or law enforcement official in the state that should not be reported for investigation and prosecution. The whole legal system in Massachusetts reeks of hypocrisy. The breakdown in law enforcement in the commonwealth begins with law enforcement. The only cure for corruption is integrity. The only way the commonwealth will restore the trust of the people is to start holding themselves accountable to the same standards as everyone else.
By Krogy on 06/25/2007 at 8:47:01
Letting the DA skate
// US juries get verdict wrong in one of six cases: study Jun 28 09:55 AM US/Eastern It is comforting to know that only seventeen percent of the defendants are actually innocent.
By Krogy on 06/28/2007 at 1:14:12
Letting the DA skate
Where’s Conley amid Hub chaos? // Clearly, DA Conley is not doing his job.
By Krogy on 07/16/2007 at 11:08:58

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