By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Late on a hot and muggy July night in 1995, my girlfriend and I were returning from the Assembly Square Cinema to our Summit Avenue apartment. Flashing lights from a mass of police, fire, and EMS vehicles assaulted us as we turned onto Boston Street.
My neighbor Gina Mahoney, whom I’ve since come to know and cherish, was sitting on her front porch. She and the cigarette she was holding were shaking. We continued home with deep feelings of foreboding.
The next day we learned that the shredded body of our neighbor Janet Downing had been found in her home. State Police detectives assigned to Middlesex District Attorney Tom Reilly’s office were taking over the investigation.
Hours later, police charged Eddie O’Brien, the fifteen-year-old best friend of Janet Downing’s son, who lived across the street. At that point, they stopped investigating, except to support the theory of Eddie’s guilt. In fact, they declined to accept material testimony that contradicted that theory. And the collective evidence of Eddie’s innocence was unequivocal.
In compellingly clear and unadorned prose, Margo Nash lays it out in her recently published book, The Politics of Murder. Ms. Nash was a trial attorney assigned by the Court to be Eddie’s guardian ad litem, a court officer appointed to advocate for the best interest of a child in the justice system.
Here is a portion of that evidence:
- Janet Downing’s killer beat her, dragged her up and down stairs, stabbed her 98 times, removed her bra, sliced it 36 times, and put it back on her. But eyewitnesses establish that Eddie was in the house only five-to-seven minutes.
- The attack sprayed blood across stairs and walls, pooling on the floor. But the clothes that eyewitnesses agree Eddie wore before and after the murder had no blood on them.
- The DNA on what the prosecutor alleged to be the murder weapon was identifiable, and it was not Eddie’s. The prosecutor chose not to identify the DNA under Janet Downing’s fingernails, as well as other DNA and fingerprints found at the scene.
- There was no forced entry to the house, and Eddie did not have keys.
- Four months before the murder, Janet Downing had asked her sister and brother-in-law, Artie Ortiz to move out of the house after she discovered that Ortiz was dealing drugs out of the basement. Ortiz declined to return his keys.
- Gina Mahoney often observed Ortiz entering the house in Downing’s absence. Items in the house disappeared and were moved. Ortiz taunted Downing by handing her a book that he had taken from her bed stand.
- The night of the murder, the cab that Ortiz drove was parked next to the Downings’ house and blocked in by emergency vehicles. A panicked Ortiz told Mahoney that he’d lost his keys. They were subsequently found in Downing’s yard.
- On the day of the murder, Janet expressed her fears about Ortiz and begged Gina to ensure that the police would “investigate, investigate, investigate” if she were killed. Gina, who was stalked by Ortiz after the murder, repeatedly tried to present her evidence to police.
Police declined her many attempts to be interviewed. Nor did they interview Viginia Reckley, who lived in the apartment that shared a wall with the Downings. Reckley had heard a commotion in the Downings’ residence at a point during the short time window when the murder could have taken place, but when witnesses established that Eddie was elsewhere. Nor did police interview Artie Ortiz.
The jury heard none of this because D.A. Tom Reilly had found a politically advantageous defendant, and Eddie’s counsel did not provide a competent defense. Franz Kafka remarks somewhere in The Trial that Justice wears the blindfold to conceal the fact that where eyes should be are two festering sores. One could form that impression by reviewing Eddie O’Brien’s experience in the justice system, as Ms. Nash does.
The murder came at a time of public hysteria regarding “super-predator” youth. In anticipation of a forecast wave of ravening teenagers, state legislatures and Congress were producing harsh sentencing laws. The predicted plague never materialized, and today, bipartisan agreement is emerging to repeal these laws.
Thomas Reilly championed them. Politically ambitious, he intended to become Attorney General, and this case offered him an irresistible grandstanding opportunity. In Eddie O’Brien, Reilly had found what Tom Wolfe called, “the great white defendant,” that is, one who would insulate Reilly from charges of racism.
So he took the unprecedented expedient of a sitting Middlesex County D.A.’s personally trying a case. His first task was to get Eddie transferred to adult court.
Many Somerville readers will remember Paul Heffernan, an exceptional jurist whom we were blessed to have in District Court for many years. Despite Reilly’s insertion of unverified evidence, Heffernan ruled that Eddie must be tried as a juvenile.
The next week, Samuel Zoll, Chief Justice of the Trial Court, called Heffernan to congratulate him for his decision’s integrity. But a week later, Zoll apprised Heffernan of a gathering political storm and told him that if he didn’t change his decision, he would be removed from the case.
Heffernan held firm. Reilly appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, and in a ruling devoid of credible evidence or sound reasoning, a politicized SJC removed Heffernan, citing the need to “eliminate controversies and unnecessary issues.” Say what?
Zoll appointed a new judge who subsequently recused himself based on a bizarre conflict-of-interest interpretation. Ultimately, Judge Timothy Gailey, known to defense attorneys as “Guilty Gailey,” conducted a second transfer hearing and ruled that Eddie should be tried as an adult.
Reilly needed a motive to convince a jury of Eddie’s guilt and to fire up the pubic. Eddie was a fifteen-year-old who had no history of violence and whose football coach and judged him to be insufficiently aggressive. Nevertheless, Reilly portrayed him as a “sexual sadist” who had become obsessed with his best-friend’s mother. As testimony by potential jurors revealed, that publicity was effective.
Leading up to and during the trial, Reilly withheld, manipulated, and misrepresented evidence. He was able to do so because Eddie’s attorney, Robert George, did not provide a robust defense. In part, this was due to the Court’s giving George insufficient time to prepare the case.
In part, it was because George was losing money. He had set a fixed price for the case, not anticipating the SJC appeal and two transfer hearings. Eddie’s parents had mortgaged their home to pay George $200,000. They were tapped out. Eddie’s weak defense was also the result of George’s gross incompetence.
Twenty-seven months after the murder, Eddie was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, a sentence that no other nation on earth imposes on a minor. One week later, Tom Reilly announced his Attorney-General candidacy. Five years later, Robert George began serving a sentence for money laundering.
Eddie has now spent over 22 years behind bars. By all accounts he is positive and mentally healthy. He has daily contact with family and friends. He is a voracious reader, a maturing writer, and is well informed regarding world events. He joins with others twice a week to say the Rosary.
Recent SJC rulings could make Eddie eligible for parole. But he would have to admit to a crime that he did not commit. He is unwilling to do so.
Boston College Law School’s Innocence Program has accepted Eddie’s case for review. When he learned of this, Judge Heffernan, who is now 84 years old, said “I hope I’m alive to see him walk out of jail.”
I do too. And when that happens, I intend to offer my friendship to Edward O’Brien.