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.