In this debut true-crime book, former trial lawyer Nash meticulously presents her case that a high-profile Boston murder trial of a 15-year-old resulted in a miscarriage of justice.
In July 1995, Janet Downing, a 42-year-old divorced mother of four, was stabbed 98 times in her home. Eddie O’Brien, who was best friends with one of the victim’s sons, was the only suspect. According to Nash, he was “an emotional adolescent with no history of violence or antisocial behavior.” Despite the fact that the police found no blood on his clothes or person and couldn’t determine a motive, he was arrested. As O’Brien’s lawyer noted in his closing argument, the state’s case, which Nash investigates in painstaking detail here, was based on “twisted evidence, a compromised crime scene, and ruined lives.” It was also, according to the author, a case of political ambition that catapulted the district attorney, Tom Reilly, to the office of attorney general: “Eddie’s case became the catalyst that changed juvenile law in Massachusetts,” Nash writes, “and sent children to adult prisons for the rest of their natural lives.” The author isn’t an objective observer; during the trial, she was asked by the judge to serve as guardian ad litem for O’Brien—his “designated adult with whom Eddie could discuss…his legal representation.” She tries to answer two questions: who really murdered Janet Downing, and why O’Brien has spent more than half his life behind bars? Overall, Nash delivers a riveting, highly detailed procedural. She profiles all of the principals in the case, clearly explains juvenile law and courtroom procedure in layman’s terms, and records the trial and, in several appendices, its aftermath. Along the way, she lays out a compelling and ultimately convincing case for O’Brien’s innocence. One ray of hope, she reports, is that the famous Innocence Project, which takes on cases that it sees as miscarriages of justice, has accepted O’Brien’s. The “uphill climb of trying to overturn his conviction” would make for an excellent sequel—or is, at least, the stuff that Netflix documentaries, such as Making a Murderer, are made of.
A real-life judicial nightmare, effectively told.
In a recent blog regarding my book “The Politics of Murder,” I mentioned that Mr. Reilly was dealing with two very high-profile unsolved murders at the time of Janet Downing’s murder in July, 1995. Deanna Cremins, age 17, was strangled and left in an alleyway just blocks from her house on March 30, 1995. Before that, law professor Mary Jo Krug, age 49, was stabbed to death while walking near her home in Cambridge in the late afternoon of April 4, 1991. Reilly and his CPAC team had failed to develop any suspects for these murders; in fact, they both remain unsolved to this day.
I got curious about other unsolved murders in Middlesex County during Tom Reilly’s years, from January 3, 1991 to January 7, 1999. I also wondered about how many murder convictions were recorded in Middlesex County during that time. Unfortunately, that data is not readily available on any Internet search. Statistics for homicides in Massachusetts are not gathered by county. Middlesex County is comprised of 12 cities and 42 towns. I tried doing a city-by-city search. Only Cambridge had a listing for all homicides committed, the dates, the manner of death, the place of death, and who—if anyone—was convicted of the crime.
So my limited review of unsolved murders in Middlesex County during the years that District Attorney Tom Reilly was in office revealed only that under Reilly’s watch there were seven murders that went unsolved, six from Cambridge and one from Somerville.
In fact, most readers will probably only recognize the name of Deanna Cremins from Somerville. For years, her family had a billboard up on Route 93 asking for information about her case. Tom Reilly often boasted about his empathy for the victims of crime… but I’d never heard him even mention these other victims!
During this same period in Cambridge, Reilly’s office obtained 10 convictions for murdered victims. You wouldn’t recognize any of their names if I listed them, except, perhaps, that of Yngye Raustein, who was an MIT student brutally stabbed on Memorial Drive by a juvenile and two 17-year-olds. But even here, I believe that while most readers would remember the crime, no one would remember Yngye’s name, or nationality, or age, or even how he was killed.
Whether or not one considers 10 convictions out of 16 murders a good clearance rate for a district attorney, (I don’t) the fact is that Mr. Reilly did not choose to personally prosecute any of those murders.
Now think about this: virtually everyone knows the name “Eddie O’Brien.” Everyone knows that his case changed the juvenile laws in Massachusetts, making it possible for 14-year-old children to be tried as adults. Everyone knows that juveniles, after the O’Brien case, could be sent to adult prisons for a sentence of life without parole. Many people even recall the victim’s name, Janet Downing.
So why was this case so different from all of the other horrific murders that took place during Tom Reilly’s tenure? It’s because he made the case famous, by choosing from the outset that hot summer night in 1995 to handle the prosecution of the case personally. As Michael Blanding noted in a Boston Magazine article entitled “The Reilly Factor” in 2002:
He (Reilly) took the unprecedented step of trying the case himself, leading angry residents to accuse him of using the boy's trial for his own political ends. Detractors accused him of grandstanding before the TV cameras and turning the case into a political issue he could ride into higher office.
Reilly, on the other hand, told a reporter that he felt a personal responsibility for Downing, whose wounds, he said, showed she’d fought hard for her life.
Does that mean he felt no personal responsibility for the other victims who were brutally murdered under his watch? Did he not believe they had fought hard enough for their lives? What does it say about an elected official who picks and chooses who is worthy of his personal attention—and who is not?
In 2002, Reilly told Boston Magazine that his motivation was nothing more than a “personal promise. We owed it to the family to finish the job.”
Why didn’t Derrick Chance, Bobby Schley, Tyrone Phoenix, Rosalie Whalen, Claire Downing, Trang Phoung Ho, Laurence Cooper, Helena Gardner, Benny Rosa or Joseph Berenger get the district attorney’s personal promise? Why didn’t he owe it to their families, to finish the job?
There is only one answer to these rhetorical questions. He didn’t personally try those cases because Tom Reilly would never have been elected attorney general for convicting Dennis Whalen of bludgeoning his wife Rosalie to death with a hammer. Tom Reilly would never have been elected attorney general for convicting Ken Downing for beating his wheelchair-bound wife Claire to death with a blunt object. Domestic violence was just not part of Reilly’s political agenda in 1995. He wasn’t trying to change the laws on domestic violence in Massachusetts. He was, however, trying desperately to change the juvenile laws in Massachusetts. He, like Governor Weld, wanted to be the trailblazer for the super predator theorists.
Less than a month after the O'Brien verdict, a jury convicted Louise Woodward (a British au pair tried for the murder of a baby in her care) of second-degree murder. But the judge in that case took the highly unusual step of reducing the verdict to manslaughter, and releasing her from custody in exchange for the time she’d served while awaiting trial. Why? He accused Reilly’s office of overreaching and overcharging defendants. He wanted to put an end to it.
The label “overzealous prosecutor” Reilly earned when he personally prosecuted the O’Brien case was forever cemented, according to Blanding, with the Woodward case.
If only Eddie O’Brien had drawn a judge willing to see what so many others saw in his case: the full weight and power of the state being brought to bear on a 15-year-old boy who had neither the temperament, the motive, or the opportunity to commit this heinous crime. If only Tom Reilly had not made a “personal promise” to Janet Downing’s family, we would have learned who really killed her that hot night in July. The real killer would have been tried and convicted of her murder, just like the other 10 murderers. The Downing family would not be tortured by reopening this case for further investigation, and Eddie O’Brien would not have lost 22 years of his life.
We all lost when Tom Reilly chose this case as his cause célèbre. That is, everyone lost… except Tom Reilly. He won that election for attorney general. But what a price the people of Massachusetts, the Downings, and the O’Briens paid for his win !
I wonder if he thinks it was worth it?
 The Reilly Factor, Michael Blanding, Boston Magazine, April, 2002
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.
Making a case for reopening the Eddie O'Brien Case
by Robert V. Ward, Jr.
In the recently published book "The Politics of Murder: The Power and Ambition Behind ‘The Altar Boy Murder Case,’” first-time author Margo Nash makes a compelling case for Eddie O’Brien’s innocence. At the very least, Nash persuaded me that Janet Downing’s murder investigation ought to be reopened, and O’Brien should have a new trial.
Downing, a 42-year-old mother of four, was found stabbed to death in her Somerville home in July 1995. Hours later, 15-year-old O’Brien, the best friend of one of Downing’s sons, was identified as a suspect.
The book offers O’Brien’s conviction as an example of what can go horribly wrong when politics and the criminal justice system collide.
Very well crafted, “The Politics of Murder” is a “CSI: Introduction to Forensic Evidence Manual”; however, it reads like an ole’-fashioned whodunit.
As Nash tells the story, the justice system ran roughshod over O’Brien’s right to the presumption of innocence. His conviction was a foregone conclusion.
The author, a Boston area attorney, first met O’Brien at his Somerville District Court arraignment on July 26, 1995, during which she was appointed his guardian ad litem by Judge Paul Heffernan.
It was Nash’s job to help O’Brien navigate his way through the juvenile criminal justice system. The law assumed a young person such as O’Brien would need help in determining what was in his own best interests.
At O’Brien’s side from the beginning, Nash had a front-row seat to a flawed police investigation into Downing’s murder, the many court proceedings, and all the other legal machinations that culminated in “Little Ed’s” conviction for first-degree murder.
Nash believes and attempts to show how, under normal circumstances, it’s unlikely O’Brien would have even been a blip on police radar. O’Brien, who is white, was an altar boy from a good family. He had no history of violence and had never been arrested. His grandfather had been chief of police for the Somerville Police Department. In other words, O’Brien did not fit the stereotype of a bad seed.
But as Nash notes, things were far from normal at the time of Downing’s death and O’Brien’s prosecution.
District attorneys in Massachusetts rarely — as in almost never — spend their time in the courtroom prosecuting criminals. Generally, elected DAs are uber administrators; they delegate the function of prosecuting cases to their assistant district attorneys. In what was a significant departure from the norm, then-Middlesex County DA Thomas Reilly personally supervised the police homicide investigation into Downing’s death and subsequently tried the case against O’Brien.
Nash questions Reilly’s motive for taking on the O’Brien case. What made this case so special?
On Oct. 9, 1997, just eight days after the jury found O’Brien guilty of first-degree murder, Reilly announced his candidacy for attorney general.
Nash was justified in worrying about O’Brien getting a fair trial, particularly when you consider the fact that police never found the murder weapon and O’Brien’s conviction rested on circumstantial evidence.
Nash offers concrete examples of how the police and Reilly failed to follow-up leads that suggested someone other than O’Brien killed Downing. She calls the leads inconvenient truths for the investigative team.
Also singled out for criticism in “The Politics of Murder” is O’Brien’s lawyer, Robert George. In Nash’s opinion, George, a veteran criminal defense attorney, performed poorly. He failed to obtain independent DNA testing on the evidence, and even worse, didn’t appear to fully grasp the nuances of the science of DNA, according to Nash. That, coupled with other oversights and omissions, proved fatal, leaving O’Brien essentially defenseless, the book suggests.
Nash does a terrific job of retelling what is a complicated, compelling story in “The Politics of Murder.” The book is an excellent read for those who gravitate to crime stories, as well as for those who care about the pursuit of justice.
Janet Downing and her loved ones deserved a comprehensive and thorough investigation of her death by police and the DA. Under both the federal and state constitutions, O’Brien was entitled to a fair trial. After reading “The Politics of Murder,” you come away thinking that, at the very least, government officials failed everyone involved in this tragedy.
Robert V. Ward Jr. is of counsel to the Law Office of Kenneth V. Kurnos. He was founding dean of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth School of Law.
*SUPERPREDATOR* PROSECUTOR, WAYNE BUDD REVERSES DIRECTION?
Back in the day, say 1992 or so, when Massachusetts was changing all of its juvenile laws every time there was a horrendous newsworthy homicide, Wayne Budd was advising Governor Bill Weld (his predecessor at the U.S. Attorney’s office).
He was the one, according to Fox Butterfield of the New York Times, who advised Weld to appoint an African American District Attorney to Suffolk County. This was an effort to head off any rioting like what happened in LA after the Rodney King beating by the LA police. Ralph Martin, who changed his party affiliation to Republican the day he was appointed, was a 39 year old relatively unknown lawyer. He was formerly an associate in his law firm of Budd and Reilly – yes, that’s THE Tom Reilly, the Democratic District Attorney for Middlesex County.
Wayne Budd is the lifelong personal friend and campaign manager for Tom Reilly, who in 1995 personally prosecuted the Eddie O’Brien case, which was the catalyst that sent children to adult prisons for life without any possibility of parole. This mandatory-minimum sentence was, in 2015, deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.
“The need for more serious punishment for juveniles who commit very serious crimes was expressed by Massachusetts state legislators, district attorneys, the Attorney General, and the Governor, following the initial decision of Judge Paul Heffernan to try fifteen-year-old Edward O’Brien as a juvenile for the gruesome murder of his neighbor.” Christine Chamberlain, Boston College Law Review, March, 2001.
In his Boston Globe editorial opinion of December 8, 2016, A tipping point for criminal justice reform, Budd advocates for reforms in sentencing, especially “ineffective mandatory-minimum sentences…”
Until Wayne Budd acknowledges that it was prosecutors like him and Tom Reilly and their political allies that advocated for unfair sentencing and over-sentencing, I, for one, am very skeptical of his commitment to reform criminal justice
Here is something that writers don’t think enough about. If you write a true crime book, the people who were hurt so deeply by the crime are most likely still around. They’ve been trying to put the trauma behind them, sometimes for years and your book will open all the wounds for them again. That’s a heavy burden to bear as the writer.