Former DA responds to book that raises doubts about teen killer's conviction
by Kris Olson
When Marstons Mills attorney, Margaret R. "Margo" Nash first laid eyes on Eddie O'Brien, then 15, he was in a cell in Somerville District Court talking to a private investigator.
"He looked like a baby," she recalls. "I had never seen someone so young in lockup."
Nash wouldn't actually get to meet O'Brien - charged with the murder of his friend's mother, Janet Downing - for a few more months, when she agreed to serve as his guardian ad litem. But once she did, her sense only deepened that there was dissonance between the person O'Brien was and the brutal acts he was said to have committed.
Still, it took more than two decades for those misgivings to coalesce into a belief that O'Brien's conviction of first-degree murder and life sentence were a politically motivated miscarriage of justice. Nash lays out her case in "The Politics of Murder: The Power and Ambition Behind 'The Altar Boy Murder Case'" published in November.
But one of the chief targets of the book, former Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, now of counsel at Boston's Manion Gaynor & Manning, says the book should be shelved in the fiction section at local libraries and bookstores.
Nash and Reilly's view of O'Brien and the proceedings leading to his conviction could not be more diverse.
Nash, who had encountered "thug wannabes" in her previous work with juveniles, found O'Brien to be different. "He was very immature, not street smart at all," she says, adding that he didn't curse or use any kind of "street language."
But for Reilly, O'Brien was a burgeoning serial killer with whom authorities were fortunate to catch up before he gained access to a car and became "mobile."
It was those stakes and his extensive experience in murder trials that led the then Middlesex County district attorney to handle the case from witness interviews on through trial, a decision Nash considers unorthadox but which Reilly says was anything but.
Each believes different accounts of what transpired the night Downing was killed.
Nash thinks O'Brien went to the Downing house to see if Downing's son had returned home and found her on the floor. Figuring she had fallen down the stairs, O'Brien only discovered her mortal wounds - Downing had been stabbed nearly 100 times - upon kneeling down to check on her. It's no surprise, then, that Downing's blood was found on O'Brien's hands, Nash says. What never made sense was the lack of blood on his clothing, she adds.
Also curiously absent, she says, is a motive, given that Downing had been like a "second mother" to O'Brien, and there was no animosity between them, Nash notes.
But Reilly says that O'Brien had been tormenting Downing by moving objects around the house. When the fatal confrontation occurred, O'Brien had been moving a painting on the wall when Downing woke up and found him.
"And he executed her," Reilly says.
As the title implies, Nash believes politics - and not just Reilly's aspirations of becoming AG - explain why investigators developed "complete tunnel vision" for O'Brien as a suspect, while abandoning a number of viable leads pointing elsewhere.
The "larger agenda" was a shift in the administration of juvenile justice overseen by then Gov.-William Weld and motivated by rampant fears of gangs of youthful "super predators" who warranted being sent to prison for life, an approach that has since been found to be unconstitutional, Nash notes.
Reilly finds such suggestions ridiculous. Indeed, politically speaking, it would have been easier to finger someone other than O'Brien, who enjoyed strong community support, in part because his grandfather had been the chief of police, according to Reilly.
"I knew it was going to be hard; that's why I took it and stayed with the case, " he says.
As he marked the 20th anniversary of his incarceration, O'Brien, now middle aged and sporting grey hair, pled with Nash to get the truth of his case out, even as he acknowledged he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Nash says she initially resisted but then got her hands on 39 boxes' worth of O'Brien's legal files.
"I sat in my living room, and the things I was finding in the files bowled me over," she says, citing exculpatory blood and DNA evidence that not only never came out at trial, but also was never shared with O'Brien.
But Reilly says the evidence of O'Brien's guilt, which includes an eyewitness who saw him come out of the back of the house shortly before Downing's body was discovered, along with forensic evidence, is "overwhelming."
Meanwhile, according to Nash, also lacking was the investigation of an alternative suspect: Downing's brother-in-law, whom she recently kicked out of the house for alleged drug trafficking. So profound were Downing's fears of the man, that she discussed them at length with a neighbor, urging her to tell authorities to "investigate, investigate, investigate" if any harm should come to her.
To Nash's way of thinking, O'Brien could potentially file several Rule 30 post-conviction motions, but she is leaving that assessment to the attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services' Innocence Program.
Innocence Program Director Lisa M. Kavanaugh declined to comment on the book or case.