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.