When news broke earlier this month that a Woburn police officer participated in and helped plan the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, it sent shockwaves through the community, and prompted questions surrounding how this happened, how it took so long for the information to surface and how Officer John Donnelly would be punished, if at all. GBH legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed joined Morning Edition Co-Host Jeremy Siegel to discuss those questions. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: Let's begin from the beginning. What happened here? What sort of role did Donnelly play in the rally and allegedly planning it?
Daniel Medwed: The Unite the Right rally occurred back in August 2017, just a few months after President Trump assumed office. And the rally included members of far-right militias and various extremist groups, including the KKK. Now, the stated aims of the organizers were basically twofold: first, to unite the disparate groups, the various groups in this movement; And second, to thwart attempts to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee that was in a Charlottesville park. Robert E. Lee, of course, was a Confederate general during the Civil War era. Things soon turned ugly, and the Virginia governor had to call a state of emergency. I think it reached its nadir when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young activist named Heather Heyer. Now, Donnelly's precise role remains slightly unclear, though reports indicate that he was a bodyguard for one of the leaders of this rally, a notorious, infamous white supremacist named Richard Spencer. Leaked chat logs from a neo-Nazi online server indicate that Donnelly played a role in planning this event and that he espoused virulent, horrific, anti-Semitic and racist views.
Siegel: We learned about a week ago that Donnelly was resigning from his post. But could there be any other consequences for his behavior here? Obviously, this goes well beyond just espousing racist views. Donnelly actually acted on them by playing an active role in this event. Could the loss of his job be the only repercussion here? Is there anything else we should be looking for?
Medwed: There are other things. For instance, according to statements released by the Woburn mayor and police chief, the ongoing Internal Affairs Bureau investigation of Donnelly's behavior is unaffected by his resignation. It's continuing apace. And if the allegations against Donnelly prove to be meritorious, according to both the mayor and the police chief, they're going to notify the organization that certifies police officers in the commonwealth. It's called the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standard and Training Commission. That's a mouthful. It's why it's called the POST Commission. They'll notify that commission about Donnelly, which may lead to his decertification, which in turn would make him ineligible to serve as a police officer in Massachusetts. Now, this is significant because it could stop a very pernicious trend that happens across the country known euphemistically as 'passing the trash.' When a police officer is fired from a particular department, all too often that person winds up at a department down the road, a few miles down the road. So being decertified would prevent that from happening in Massachusetts.
Siegel: How exactly does that certification process work?
Medwed: This POST Commission is a rather new development. For many years, Massachusetts was among a handful of states that lacked a robust statewide licensing process for police officers. That changed when the legislature passed a law designed to promote police accountability and created the POST Commission in 2020. So it's really a new entity. It's very much a work in progress. But here's what we know so far: the Commission has completed its review of about 8,800 officers, looking at disciplinary records and complaint reports to see whether they will be certified or recertified as officers. Apparently, 19 officers were deemed ill-suited for recertification and may eventually be terminated. The remaining officers in the Commonwealth evidently will be reviewed over the next couple of months. So I think this process is a very welcome development, first because it will inject some transparency into how police officers are reviewed, and second, and perhaps most notably, it will lead to a level of uniformity from department to department, which was sorely lacking, I think, up until the formation of the POST Commission.
Siegel: I mentioned all of the questions swirling for people in the community following these revelation. There are definitely questions about Woburn's police department. I'm curious, is decertification the only potential ripple effect for Donnelly's participation in the rally, that he might not be allowed to work as a police officer again in Massachusetts? I mean, that's significant. But could there be anything more than that?
Medwed: I think there are both internal ripple effects, the effect on Donnelly and his job, but also, perhaps more importantly, external ripple effects on the cases he handled while he was a police officer. So specifically, the district attorney for Middlesex County, Marian Ryan, has announced that she's going to investigate every open and closed case in which Donnelly had a hand. And also, she's going to notify defense lawyers about Donnelly's misbehavior. This is known in the business as impeachment material. Defense attorneys have a right to receive information from the prosecution that could be used to discredit or impeach a prosecution witness on the stand. For instance, a police officer involved in the case. Learning about Donnelly's racist and anti-Semitic views, his involvement in this rally, would seem to be classic impeachment material that'll give defense attorneys leverage in plea negotiations and potentially at trial if cases get that far. So I think the real ripple effects could be that almost every single arrest he played a role in could be tainted by his misdeeds.
"I think the real ripple effects could be that almost every single arrest he played a role in could be tainted by his misdeeds."-Daniel Medwed, GBH News Legal Analyst
Siegel: Before we let you go, Daniel, do you have any thoughts on why this took so long to surface? I mean, it was five years since the rally before we learned about this.
Medwed: You know, Jeremy, it is absolutely puzzling. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, you know that. But one can't help but speculate and wonder about the notorious blue wall of silence, that the police were protecting one of their own over the course of these five years. The fact is that it was the Huffington Post and some online sleuths that revealed this — it wasn't the police and it wasn't a local newspaper. I think that should trouble all of us.