The politics of murder

On January 27, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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.


22 Responses to “The politics of murder”

  1. Anne says:

    Judge Paul Heffernan berated a woman in open court for asking for a restraining order. Shortly thereafter she was murdered by her husband. No, not an exceptional jurist. Regarding the O’Brian case I thought there was lots of blood and DNA evidence. Perhaps I am incorrect.

  2. Family says:

    As an immediate family member of Janet’s who lived in the house, I can say this article is riddled with many inaccuracies. I attended both transfer hearings and the trial, along with other court proceedings. I have lived with this case for 20+ years. I will correct a few of these “alternative facts”
    1 There was a struggle on the stairs. But she was not beaten.
    2. A witness testified during the trial that he saw O’Brien in his (witnesses’s) yard the night of the murder washing himself off with a garden hose. However, he missed a spot of Janet’s blood on his leg, which the police tested and identified as Janet’s blood. In regards to his clothes, the police believe he changed clothes afterwards and dumped them somewhere.
    3. They tried testing the DNA under Janet’s fingernails but could not because there was not enough of a sample to test.
    4. The DNA tested did belong to Janet and O’Brien
    5. In regards to how he got into the house, this was explained during the court proceedings. O’Brien was in the house a few hours prior with Janet’s son Ryan. The lock on our backdoor knob in the kitchen was broken so you had to use the deadbolt to lock it. Ed was messing with the door and asked Ryan what was wrong with it. Ryan explained the problem with the lock to him. It’s believed Ed left the deadbolt unlocked to get into the house.
    6. These claims of obsession and taunting by Artie are ridiculous. I won’t even address them any further cause it’s not worth my energy. Simply rumors and lies.
    7. In regards to Artie blocking the emergency vehicle, this is what actually happened. Artie was working the night of Janet’s murder. His wife called him and told him what happened to Janet. Like any family member would, he rushed up to the house, quickly parked, and tried to run into the house to see Janet. The police grabbed him and they fell. Artie later realized that he lost his keys when the police grabbed him. That’s why he was looking for his keys.
    8. Virgina Reckley is a straight-up lier. I stood in her living room with my sister the day after the murder. She told me directly to my face that she heard nothing that night. I was absolutely shocked when she then totally changed her story during the trial.
    I ask that if people are going to write about Janet’s murder, to please check all of your facts and sources. The damage and hurt you can cause can be irreversible.

  3. Highlander says:

    Guilty as sin this scum will never walk the streets again , you’ll need a lot bullshit evidence then this , “we think this” you have nothing , but some bullshit old lady that just loves to be the center of attention, you fools got this murderer in two different places at the same time, first he was being mugged down in Central Sq , now he’s trying to change his testimony an say he just happened to come across a murder , which is it you people can’t even right , explain how he was being mugged , but now he walked into a murder an why he walked into that house knowing no one was home , knowing everyone was at the beach , the kids a scumbag murderer stop trying to change the evidence to fit your bullshit theory, all lies that’s all you got , his family just can’t face the truth ….

  4. Tower says:


  5. Highlander says:

    “He’s only 15, he’s an easy client to work with, he’s courteous, polite, he appreciates what I’m doing for him,” Edward L. Hayden told the Herald this morning in Lawrence District Court. “He’s been a very cooperative client. He’s concerned about his future.”… , gees sounds like another murderer we know , maybe Margo Nash is this kids lawyer or is this just shit lawyers try to pull over our eyes , please tell us what a murderer looks like an how they act , this kid is charged with beheading his best friend , this kids a lifer when found guilty, maybe roommates …..

  6. Highlander says:

    So let me get this right , you think the court will toss all the DNA , physical evidence, eyewitness evidence, a murders own lies about being mugged ( no evidence, no eyewitness ) now his story changes 20 yrs later that he now just happen to be in the house during the murder , face to face with the murderer who just had a kind heart an told to him to leave , his family offers a fake reward for a mugging that never was true from the beginning , there’s no other evidence that points to anyone else DNA , physical, eyewitness , just some old lady who’s making up stories as the case gets older funny how her stupid theory just keeps getting bigger as the years go by , you want the courts to believe any of your bullshit lies , you’ll have to prove a lot more then that , oh by the way 20 yrs later it all still points right to Eddie O’Brien , how are you people fooling anyone that this is a frame up conspiracy against a 15 yr kid is foolish, ridiculous, no court in this country will ever believe it , this is just a family pulling out what ever they think people will believe, No court system will ever overlook the real evidence, lifeforalife

  7. I know Margo Nash as a relentless attorney and Judge Heffernan as a judge with a great deal of integrity. Most people don’t want to believe that our criminal justice system is imperfect. The changes in the juvenile justice system that resulted from this case were far more harmful to juveniles than protective of the public. At the very least, the issues that Margo Nash raises deserve a second – and in some instances, a first – look. This was not the first time politics determined the outcome, nor will it be the last.

  8. Rayo says:

    Absolutely it did , put them away for life right where they belong , now all these liberals want to put these murders back in society , you need to face the truth Margo Nash & Obrien people …..lifeforalife

  9. Rayo says:

    This kid is a convicted murderer , politics didn’t kill this woman, politics didn’t hold the knife that killed this woman , his knife his blood on the broken hilt of the knife he owned , he owned 2 identical knifes , one was found in his trash his house wrapped in paper towels where’s the other one hmm … (proven an found at the scene ) she’s basically trying to tell us this kid ( should of only been tried as a juvenile, Tom Riley did the right thing ) was over charged for stabbing his victim 90 times , she thinks a lesser charge of by Accident would of been the right charge , he’s made up numerous stories every time the other fails , him and his family can’t get their stories right from day one , if there’s ever a case for the Death Penalty in Massachusetts this is it , Margo Nash how’s it feel to have blood money in your hands , but then again this is America anything for a buck , how do you live with yourself , bringing false hope to a murderer for a buck ….sad , this kid is the worst of the worst hopefully they also allow this program to read his prison file ,he’s not the role model prisoner his family is making him out to be , he’s also one of the biggest scums while locked up behind bars , why wont his family or lawyers let him go before the parole board , because the truth of his last 20+ yrs will come out , you can’t hide that Margo Nash…. you talk about this case being a high profile in the news ,it was his family putting this all over the news ( Not DA Tom Riley , not the Governor’s office , not the people trying to put him away for life )his family trying to blame any person for his actions , when one name (person) was excluded they just went down a list of names till they came up with a stupid heresay story , sad ( but funny)how this ladies story keeps expanding over 20+ yrs , no proven evidence,no physical , no eyewitness , nothing but lies from an old nutty lady trying to help family friends ( if anyone else needs to be charged with anything in this case it’s the Nut for perjury an trying to cover up )now we have this Margo Nash trying to grab at any spot light that will listen to her bull crap ,He committed this (vicious murder) crime with no remorse then, an still no has remorse to this day , lifeforalife ….his family is trying to play the system , time for this kid & his (The O’Brien) family to go a way an live with the truth …..

  10. Rayo says: , read the truth here , even before DA Tom Riley was involved with this case , this family & Margo Nash really want people to believe this was a conspiracy & framing of a 15 yr old kid , that’s far from the truth , this kid put his own body & his own DNA there , this is not just a person at the wrong place wrong time , he had no right to be in that house from the start …..

  11. Artie Ortiz says:

    The real killer is behind bar

  12. Somerville be concerned says:

    The sad part about this whole thing , this family knows their son is Guilty on all charges , convicted on 1st degree murder with no chance of parole, all their appeals have already been denied, their just pissed their son was not charged as a Juvenile , ( sick people they are ) which would of gave him a possible parole, their not at all upset he committed murder, they only wanted him to be charged as a Juvenile, But the DA was dead set on Adult charges with no parole because of the cruelty in which he committed this crime , they’ll use any name an or method to get this murderer out , hopefully all Judges involved again don’t allow this to happen , or they’ll have a murderer walking the streets of Somerville ….they’ll always be in denial

  13. ritepride says:

    The author has something in common with the “old lady” Highlander mentions – “just loves to be the center of attention”

  14. Wearefamily says:

    So a lil birdy tells me this lady , is all upset her name & her crap book are being made to look bad with all the comments post on the internet, are you friggin kidding me lady ( one of her comments sent to a person of interest , ask your family to stop writing negative comments cause their making you look worst then some lady in the book who’s lies grow by the days ( hmm what does that mean , you also don’t believe her ) you and your friends the O’Briens drag an innocent name in to your drama , which happens to be a brutal murder committed by their son , for 20 yrs plus yrs now you’ve done nothing but try to pin this murder on anyone but the convicted one , you want people to worry about you now , lol get a clue lady you put an innocent person in your book of lies , karma live with it ….!

  15. Artie says:

    I just want to say that gina Mahoney is all lies. So the proof they think they have please put it on the table. 22 yrs u still have nothing on me because I didn’t do. And you liers up there now it wasn’t me. Hope he rots in hell

  16. Sarah says:

    Currently reading this book: My question is, before all these crime/forensic/DNA/FBI/Internet access age, how can a 15 year old commit this crime without having LOTS of evidence? A 15 year old had to slip up somewhere & detectives should have had an open & shut case, yet, there is still discussion about him being innocent and guilty 22 years later. Back to the book.

  17. RayO says: , read the truth where the actual evidence is proven , not a book full of twisted unproven facts an lies , save yourself the 99 c , the facts are free …. google it , it was an open n shut case the delay was his family’s fight that he only be charged as a Juvenile, (why) so he didn’t get life as an Adult …

  18. RayO says:

    Sad how you try an compare this murderers case to the stories you post on your two pages you control with the lies an unproven facts , how cowardly that you also got them blocked to only fake facts you want to post , open them up let the public post their opinions,are you afraid of people posting the truth , you write a book that your only making assumptions in , the only truth in that book is this murderer was convicted on a cruel heinous act of murder another coward attacking an innocent woman , you will slip up with all your lies , Karma works believe it …..

  19. Anne says:

    I’m just starting the book right now and am appalled that things such as the mental health of the victim’s family, that a daughter had “many” problems and that one son is gay are even mentioned! None of this had anything to do with the crime and it was a lowball tactic.

  20. Somerville knows the truth says:

    How awesome you hold all these social readings about a book (on the Cape ) of lies an untrue misleading assumptions, but yet you stay as far away from the scene of the actual crime (Somerville) cowards hide , they stay far away from truth as possible , that’s exactly what their doing , afraid to face the true questions , Nothing but cowards who believe this person served enough time for his conviction of murder ,! #lLifeforalife , it will stand to the final day !

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