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.
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.
RESULTS OF ALL ADJUDICATED MURDER CASES IN BOSTON
BEFORE CONLEY (1998–February 2002)
First degree 30%
Second degree 18%
UNDER CONLEY (since February 2002)
First degree 33%
Second degree 16%
Lesser charge 3%
Source: Suffolk County District Attorney, Phoenix research
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.