Martha Coakley’s Troubling Record

[Note: Friends of Justice is a personal blog. I speak only for myself.]

Attorney General Martha Coakley is generally acknowledged as the leading candidate in the Massachusetts governor’s race. Many are supporting her solely because of her past support of gay marriage. Some are voting for her because she is a woman. Others because they view her as a progressive.

But there are troubling aspects of her history.

Her Career in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office

From 1989 to 2007, Coakley worked in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office. She was elected District Attorney in 1999.

Coakley came to prominence as the prosecutor of Ray and Shrley Souza, the Lowell grandparents falsely accused and convicted of molesting their own grandchildren. The case was spurred by a daughter who was victimized by a reovered-memory “therapist.” The testimony against the Souzas was manufactured by the same discredited methods used in the other high-profile cases of the day. Ray Souza is now deceased but Shirley is saddled with living out her life out as a registered sex-offender. (I have it on good authority that Coakley coerced the testimony of one of the daughters by threatening to have her children taken away if she did not co-operate.)

Coakley was also the prosecutor in the case of Louise Woodward — the nanny accused of murdering a child in her care. Coakley charged Woodward with first-degree murder — a classic instance of overcharging. The medical evidence was flawed and is now known to be unreliable. But conviction is easy when a child has died. Woodward won her conviction, but the judge changed the verdict to manslaughter, sentenced her to time served, and released her to return to England.

Coakley had much post-conviction involvement in the Fells Acres case. The Amirault family was falsely accused and wrongly convicted of abusing children at the daycare school that they ran. This was one of the classic daycare cases, along with the McMartin case, Bernard Baran, the Little Rascals, and many others. While Coakley was not one of the original prosecutors, she fought the appeals tooth and nail. And after the parole board unanimously recommended the commutation of Gerald Amirault’s sentence, she orchestrated a disinformation campaign against the Amiraults and successfully lobbied the governor to ignore the recommendation. She permitted Cheryl Amirault to remain free by forcing her to forfeit her First Amendment rights. For more about Coakley’s obstruction of justice for the Amirault family, see this article in the Wall Street Journal and this one in the Metrowest Daily News.

Coakley and her office also tried to derail a wrongfully convicted defendant’s efforts to prove his innocence via DNA evidence. They claimed they could not locate it. It wasn’t that difficult to find. One ethical member of her staff secretly conveyed the necessary information to the Innocence Project, who then reframed their request very specifically. Once the evidence was turned over it was tested and cleared the defendant, Coakley’s office then tried to plea-bargain him — supposedly in order to expedite release. The Innocence Project was not taken in by this tactic. The defendant was exonerated and subsequently compensated as a wrongfully convicted person.

This was not the only case in which she obstructed the release of an innocent person. Coakley resisted freeing Kenneth Waters even after DNA proved his innocence of murder, as dramatized in the film Conviction.

As Massachusetts Attorney General

Since becoming Attorney General in 2010, her record continues to be troubling.

On November 6, 2009, the Boston Globe published an article, titled, “Death Penalty Foes Rip Coakley for Signing Brief,” citing facts in the case which involves an Alabama man, a convicted murderer. The man, Holly Wood, has appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds his state-appointed lawyer failed to introduce crucial evidence that he, Mr. Wood, is mentally retarded.

Attorney General Coakley, who says she is firmly against capital punishment, has drawn the ire of some death penalty opponents by urging the U.S. Supreme Court to limit federal review of state court decisions, which opponents say could make it harder for defendants on death row to challenge their sentences.

Coakley, along with 18 other states’ attorneys general, signed a friend-of-the court brief in September, 2009, asking that the nation’s highest court maintain restrictions on intervention by federal courts. Death penalty opponents say if Coakley’s arguments prevail it could be more difficult for federal courts to overturn death sentences, as well as other criminal punishments, handed down in state courts.

“There’s no way this kid should be killed,” said Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who also teaches at Yale and Georgetown Law schools. “At the end of the day, if Alabama wins, this kid with an IQ in the 60s will be executed.”

Martha Coakley also joined in an amicus brief that advocates for total immunity for prosecutors in a case of two African American men from Iowa, having spent 25 years of their lives in prison, who’d been appealing their unjust conviction on the grounds they’d been framed by prosecutors for a murder they did not commit. In November, 2009, the case was before the U.S. Supreme Court. But the lawsuit was settled, mooting the case. Coakley is a firm believer in absolute prosecutorial immunity — an immense obstacle to justice.

On November 10, 2008, Martha Coakley, as Attorney General, argued before the Court that requiring forensics scientists to testify at criminal trials where their reports are presented as evidence would place an undue burden on the state’s already-backlogged drug testing system.

The case centers on whether a defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to confront witnesses against him applies to the admission of drug analysis certificates as evidence at criminal trials. If it does, the analysts who prepare the reports could be required to provide live testimony in court.

The Justices pointed to California’s system, in which drug analysis certificates can be admitted as evidence only if the analyst who prepares the report testifies, or if the defense stipulates that the reports can be admitted without testimony. When asked why Massachusetts couldn’t function under a similar system, Coakley said she was not familiar enough with the California system.

On June 6, 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to cross-examine forensic experts who prepare laboratory reports on illegal drugs and other scientific evidence used at trial.

The Innocence Project, a national advocacy group that has used DNA evidence to exonerate 240 convicted criminals, hailed the decision, which applies to state and federal courts across the country. The group said that faulty forensic science contributed to about half of the wrongful convictions the organization has helped to reverse.

Coakley was criticized for her poor showing before the Court, from her trouble dealing with the question regarding California’s system and two other justices’ questions over distinctions between crime lab reports and eyewitness testimony.

Coakley’s First Amendment record is far from stellar. Her gag order against Cheryl Amirault has already been mentioned. And according to her Wikipedia entry:

In 2010, Coakley helped draft a Massachusetts law regulating obscenity on the internet. In a decision celebrated by civil rights advocates, the law was overturned by a federal judge after a coalition of booksellers and website publishers sued, claiming the new law was unconstitutional and would hold criminally liable anyone who operates a website containing nudity or sexual material including subjects such as art or even health information such as pregnancy or birth control. They said the law failed to distinguish between open websites and obscene material. Federal Judge Rya W. Zobel stated that the plaintiffs demonstrated “without question’’ that the law violated the First Amendment by infringing on and inhibiting free speech

Very troubling to me personally has been the treatment that Bernard Baran has received from her and her office. If there was ever a wrongfully convicted person who should have been given maximum compensation, promptly and with an abject apology, it was Baran. Instead, Coakley’s office fought him tooth-and nail. After months and months of humiliating negotiation, Baran finally agreed to reduced compensation to bring matters to a close. His alternative would have been to fight Coakley in Court, which would have eaten up most of his compensation.

The “gay-friendly” Coakley has been unmoved by the fact that the Baran case was driven by homophobic hysteria.

While Coakley had no direct role in Baran’s prosecution, she is from Western Massachusetts and has close ties to several involved in the case, including her cousin Detective Peter McGuire. Baran was suing McGuire for his misconduct in the case when the lawsuit was unfortunately mooted by McGuire’s suicide.

Baran was also led to believe that his criminal record would be cleansed. Coakley refuses to do this and is shamefully fighting him in Court.

At 2 p.m. on February 26, 2013, Bernard Baran, represented by attorney John Swomley, asked a Massachusetts judge to expunge all records of his arrest and conviction.  “Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the past has had a troubling record with these cases,” says…Swomley…“Now is her chance finally to do something right, something no reasonable person could possibly think unwise.  We were surprised that the State opposed the expungement of Baran’s records…” [Sadly, Baran is still fighting Coakley to get his record cleared.]

In Summary

One of the main themes that emerges in reviewing Coakley’s record is her belief in absolute prosecutorial immunity — even when prosecutors deliberately obstruct justice, even when prosecutors break the law. Since Coakley herself has been a prosecutor for over a quarter of a century, one must wonder whether she considers herself above the law.

Governor Deval Patrick has done much to improve the Massachusetts judicial system with his appointments, including several fine appointments to the Supreme Judicial Court. Coakley could undo his good work by appointing judges who are insensitive to the problem of prosecutorial misconduct. In my opinion, that alone is sufficient reason to vote for someone else as Governor.

-Bob Chatelle