Attorney General Martha Coakley has been a key player in the fight for LGBT civil rights. She’s worn the white hat and led the charge many times. She challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), she fought for protections for the transgender community, she chaired the Massachusetts Commission on Bullying Prevention.
Coakley has also been a hero in the battle for women's rights and protecting women from harassment when seeking reproduction services or abortions.
That’s the front of the gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley package. But look more closely. On the back of the package, in small print, is a warning label.
Here it is: As Middlesex district attorney and attorney general, Martha Coakley has been an aggressive prosecutor who too often has put the needs of the commonwealth above the rights of the people, and rarely corrects miscarriages of justice. Her overreaching decisions are more often than not overruled by clearer heads.
• Coakley declared that the casino law didn’t need a voter referendum. The State Judicial Supreme Court overruled her.
• Coakley personally argued the state’s case in the crime lab case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. Coakley’s argument: Crime labs techs should not have to be present at trial to be questioned by defense attorneys. The reason? It would be a burden on prosecutors. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Even Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
• Coakley is an aggressive prosecutor, even when aggression may not be needed. Remember the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” hoax? Google it. Coakley thought the overwhelming police response to the marketing campaign mistaken for a bomb was appropriate.
• Coakley, as Middlesex District Attorney, overcharged nanny Louise Woodward, aged 19, in 1997. Woodward was charged with murder in the death of her charge, infant Matthew Eappen. Woodward was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was reduced by Judge Hiller Zobel to involuntary manslaughter. Zobel said at the time, "The circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense supporting a conviction for second-degree murder," adding: "I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice."
• Coakley is hesitant to admit mistakes. In the 1980s, a hysteria spread across the country. Day-care workers were being prosecuted for outrageous sexual and physical abuse of children. “Experts” were brought in to “help” the children explain what abuse had happened to them and who was responsible. None of these methods are used today. Many gay men were wrongly accused. In Massachusetts, in 1984, one high-profile case was that of the Fells Acres Day Care Center. Gerald Amirault, who worked at the day dare was convicted of raping nine children and was sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. His mother, Violet Amirault, and sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, were also charged. After conviction and imprisonment, the case against the Amiraults fell apart.
Martha Coakley wasn’t involved with the prosecution, but when a parole board recommended, 5-0, clemency for Gerald Amirault, Coakley very publicly and aggressively lobbied Gov. Jane Swift to keep Amirault in prison. He was finally released.
• And perhaps the saddest of all is the case of Bernard Baran. Baran served 21 years in prison on child molestation charges that were overturned in 2006. As openly gay 19 year old working in a day care in 1984, he was a prime target for a false accusation. Baran’s trial was a miscarriage of justice on many fronts — homophobia, evidence to exonerate him undisclosed — and while in prison he was raped and beaten. There is little doubt he was innocent. Again, Martha Coakley was not involved in his prosecution but she defended the state when Baran sued for restitution and to have his criminal record expunged. Baran, understandably, did not want another trial. That means he was not found “innocent.” And that means he could not have his record expunged. Attorney General Martha Coakley could have decided not mount a defense of the state. But she did. Bernard Baran died September 1 at age 49. He died with a criminal record.
• Earlier this year, Coakley didn’t think twice about trampling the First Amendment when she demanded Craigslist remove its adult services section in an effort to curb human trafficking. The shortsighted move ignored the fact that many publications, including the good old phonebook, carry such sections. She ignored the warnings from sex workers that Craiglist is place where a woman can work for herself — without a pimp. Or that the elimination of the section may drive criminals further underground, and therefore more difficult to find.
Certainly it's difficult for an elected official to transition from law enforcement to leadership (the curse of the “attorney general”), and an argument can be made that she was simply vigorously doing what she was mandated to do. Except there are occasions when she didn't drop the full force of the law on miscreants.
• As Middlesex D.A. in 1995, Coakley negotiated a closed-door plea deal with Rev. John J. Geoghan that avoided prosecution, and gave him a year of probation with no criminal record for abusing three children. Geoghan was accused by 130 victims —all children. In 2002 Coakley would meet Geoghan again, successfully prosecuting him for molesting a boy.
The 1995 deal allowed the Boston Archdiocese to keep investigators out of the church records — records that included accusations against Geoghan.
Clearly the terms of the probation were not strict enough to keep Geoghan from becoming an even more dangerous pedophile.
Some say Coakley got the best outcome possible in the 1995 case. Even if that is true, the stark difference in the way D.A. Coakley handled a guilty Geoghan versus the way A.G. Coakley handled an innocent Baran is mindblowing.
Geoghan had institutional power behind him and avoided a criminal record. Baran was just a wrongly imprisoned nobody who died with a criminal record.
Today’s local law enforcement is armed with tanks; the National Security Agency (NSA) is reading your email; and governors have no issue shutting down a major city to allow a manhunt. If elected governor, Martha Coakley's term should be carefully scrutinized and monitored to ensure the expansion of state and federal power is slowed.
You’ve been warned.
Sue O'Connell is co-publisher of Bay Windows.