Coakley’s Public Comments Don’t Measure Up to Reality
Office has Reputation for Unethical Tactics Toward Defense Attorneys
In response to the United States Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Blakely vs. Washington (2003), United States vs. Booker (2005) and United States vs. Fanfan (2005) freeing Federal District Court judges from having to sentence criminal defendants in accordance with the formally mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley has made some surprising, if not entirely credible, public comments. As part of a CLS Sentencing Panel in January 2005, Coakley stated that in addressing the inadequacies of a criminal justice, not enough attention has been paid to the role of the defense attorney. She said treating defense lawyers as highly respected professionals is an important way to check the power of prosecutors.
Unfortunately, while the role of the criminal defense attorney is critical, there is no District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts that treats defense counsel with less respect and more unconcealed contempt than Coakley’s office. Prior to Coakley, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office had an “open file” policy. Under that policy, assistant district attorneys would literally open their files to defense lawyers and provide them with copies of any documents they desired. The open file policy fostered a respect between defense counsel and the prosecutor. It allowed defense counsel to assure himself that nothing was being kept from him and his client, thereby creating an atmosphere of trust and, perhaps, opening a dialogue that might lead to a fair resolution of the case short of a trial. Because defense counsel was permitted to access the D.A.’s file, he was well positioned to assure his own client that the prosecutor was not withholding evidence that at trial might tip the balance in favor of the defense.
But, Coakley discontinued this practice. For Coakley’s entire reign as District Attorney, defense attorneys have been forced to file discovery motion after discovery motion to force Coakley’s prosecutors to turn over to them evidence that the defense is entitled to under the rules of criminal procedure. It is not unusual for her minions to wait until just days before a serious trial to dump hundreds of pages of documents on a defense attorney or to spring “newly” discovered evidence on counsel during the trial. And, in an effort to deprive defense counsel of needed time to prepare for trial, Coakley’s prosecutors will serve dozens of motions, motions that they drafted days or weeks earlier, on him the day before or the first day of the trial. In short, Coakley’s prosecutors use every unsavory tactic at their disposal to make it impossible for defense counsel to properly prepare himself for trial.
And when those tactics fail, Coakley’s prosecutors employ even more brutish and unethical strategies to produce a victory for the prosecution. Her assistants enjoy a reputation for bullying defense witnesses and threatening those witnesses with phony prosecutions to scare them away from the witness stand. Prominent defense attorneys complain that Coakley assigns staff to follow them around the courthouse, eavesdropping on their conversations and secreting themselves in law libraries to learn what legal issues they are researching.
Worst of all, Coakley’s attorneys have been routinely caught failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense counsel. Only during a rape trial in August 2003, did a defense lawyer learn that the prosecutor possessed medical records of the so-called victim in which she stated that she and the accused had not had sexual intercourse. That prosecutor is still employed by Coakley. In a murder case, the defense claimed that the defendant was taken against his will to the Police Station. Defense counsel for all three co-defendants requested videotapes located within and outside the station that would have captured the defendants as they were brought into the station. Under court order, Coakley’s prosecutors turned over a tape – of the wrong date. When confronted in court, the prosecutors claimed it was a mistake. They later claimed that the videotape of that night was not available because the VCR was not working properly. Obviously, it is impossible to know in how many cases evidence is withheld. Coakley has created an atmosphere of distrust where once defense counsel and prosecutors enjoyed mutual respect.
Finally, as has already been explored on this site, Coakley’s office makes every effort to intimidate defense attorneys by threatening them with trumped up criminal charges and complaints of ethics violations to the Bar.
For Coakley to now claim that criminal justice system will function better if defense work is treated as a highly respected profession would be amusing if it did not show her to be such a threat to the rights of criminal defendants to prepared and unintimidated defense counsel. Shame on her.
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office
When the typical citizen considers the District Attorney’s Office here in Middlesex County (to the extent that he considers it at all), he perhaps recalls the sensational cases prosecuted by the office. Middlesex County has, unfortunately, become almost synonymous with high profile criminal prosecutions. In the past ten years, Court TV has covered the “Nanny” trial, the “Hockey Dad” trial, the Eddie O’Brien trial, and the “Mucko” McDermott trial.
Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley is a long-time prosecutor. After the eight-year reign of Thomas Reilly, the grim, hard, charmless former District Attorney, the criminal defense bar had great hopes that Ms. Coakley would set a new tone for the office. In contrast to the image she projects on television, Ms. Coakley can be friendly and outgoing. Surprising many attorneys, Ms. Coakley runs an office outright hostile to defendants and their lawyers.
After two years in office, Ms. Coakley’s ideal for assistant district attorneys is, sadly, no secret. While the office hires mostly bright, newly minted lawyers to staff the district courts (where less serious offenses are prosecuted), the office is notorious for promoting only the most tightly-wound, holier-than-thou, black-and-white, and unreasonable assistant district attorneys to prosecute Superior Court cases. District Court prosecutors revealing any humanity whatsoever are eliminated from consideration.
In most counties, the criminal defense attorneys and the prosecutors mix freely. Although their respective obligations place them at opposing ends of the system, a certain camaraderie exists. Not in Middlesex County. In Cambridge Superior Court prosecutors huddle together in dark corners, interacting with defense attorneys as infrequently as possible.
That these Middlesex County prosecutors are coldly single minded in their pursuit of alleged law breakers can be unsettling. Many are oddly detached from their ethical obligations and for the Constitutional rights of the accused. The least ethical prosecutors know no depth to which they will not sink to obtain a conviction. Depriving the accused citizen of his right to a fair trial is–to too many Middlesex County prosecutors–a sport. Middlesex prosecutors are earning a reputation among defense attorneys for hiding exculpatory evidence, dishonesty and dirty tricks. Time and time again, Coakley’s office threatens to prosecute criminal defense attorneys with trumped up charges – all designed to intimidate and harass these lawyers into abandoning their obligations to their clients. A frightened defense attorney offers little resistance to a rabid prosecutor. And if these prosecutors secure a conviction against the accused, they seek unimaginably severe sentences. So wildly inappropriate was a recent recommendation of a Coakley prosecutor, a Superior Court judge characterized it as “irrational.”
Over-zealous law enforcement is no boon to a community. Local and State police take their cues from the District Attorney. Ms. Coakley runs an office so openly hostile to the Constitutional Rights of citizens accused of crimes it has become the enemy of not only the accused, but of the process. It is time to replace Ms. Coakley and elect a District Attorney conscientious of the rights of the victim and of the accused.