Tough Battle Ahead for DA
16-Year Veteran Walsh Looks to Silence Critics, Defeat Rare Challenger
By Aaron Nicodemus
June 25, 2006
New Bedford — For the past 16 years, Paul F. Walsh Jr. has been the district attorney for Bristol County. It's a job he loves, and one he'd like to keep for the rest of his life.
"It's the best job in the world," Mr. Walsh said in his downtown New Bedford law office, sporting his trademark green tie. "When I say this, my ADAs (assistant district attorneys) roll their eyes, but I mean it. You get a chance to make a difference. Every day in court, there's a personal drama going on between a victim and a defendant. Victims are people who can't fight for themselves. We can stand up and be heroes to them. I wouldn't want another job."
Until this year, Mr. Walsh has had little difficulty holding on to his dream job. After defeating incumbent Ronald A. Pina in the 1990 Democratic primary, Mr. Walsh has not been challenged in three subsequent elections. He has built a strong political base, and enjoys name recognition across the country and a $600,000 campaign war chest that is down to around $400,000 now.
But this year, Fall River attorney C. Samuel Sutter is opposing Mr. Walsh in the Sept. 19 Democratic primary. His entrance into the race marks the first time in 16 years that Mr. Walsh's record is being discussed and debated in such a public way.
A former assistant district attorney under Mr. Walsh, Mr. Sutter has criticized Mr. Walsh for 19 unsolved homicides in New Bedford since 2001, for allowing the county's gun problems and gang membership to grow under his watch, and for refusing to use wiretaps to listen in on and record what potential suspects are saying.
Mr. Sutter said police officers are telling him that Mr. Walsh micromanages their cases, and refuses to issue a murder indictment unless he has an airtight case against a suspect.
"He's afraid to get an indictment unless he has an overwhelming case," Mr. Sutter said. "And he's lost two murder cases this year. There's a problem here. He's not getting indictments, and he's losing murder cases when he does."
A Hands-on approach
For the record, Mr. Walsh's track record in homicide cases this year is three convictions, two acquittals and one trial currently in court.
In February, Lydell Pina was found not guilty in the 2003 stabbing death of Patrick Murphy in a New Bedford tenement. In the same month, two of five co-defendants in the 2001 New Bedford murder of George R. Carpenter, Lionel Rodriguez and Ryan Marshall, were both found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Two weeks ago, Felix Marrero was found not guilty in the Fall River fatal stabbing of Raymond Davila. A co-defendant, Fred Dixon, is currently on trial. After one trial ended with a hung jury, Patricio Santiago was retried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole for the stabbing death of Michael White in 2003.
According to Mr. Walsh, there have been 260 homicides in Bristol County from 1991, when he took office, through May 2006. Those include three shootings involving police officers, which were all ruled as justifiable homicides by the District Attorney's office.
Forty-one of those remain unsolved, he said.
Specifically on homicide investigations, several police officers in Bristol County have charged that Mr. Walsh's office is not accessible, does not share information, and is reluctant to press charges without an "airtight" case. By and large, police officials have been reluctant to go public with those allegations, however.
Last week, New Bedford Police Union president Leonard F. Baillargeon laid those charges down as reasons for the union's endorsement of Mr. Sutter's candidacy.
Joseph Costa, a retired state police officer who worked with Mr. Walsh for many years, agreed with the micromanaging charge.
"He likes to manage cases more so than other DAs," said Mr. Costa of Mr. Walsh, whom he called a lifelong friend whom he respects professionally. "He wants his fingers in every investigation. Sometimes it interfered with the investigations. Paul has his own way of doing things, he wants to put his brand on things coming out of his office."
Former New Bedford Police Chief Arthur Kelly III said that while he and Mr. Walsh have disagreed about the direction some investigations took, he always respected Mr. Walsh, and that Mr. Walsh was always thinking of the victims.
"Paul is very concerned for the victims of crime, particularly kids, the elderly and the disadvantaged," he said. "I think he's really focused on people who don't have power."
In his tenure as DA, Mr. Walsh has taken on judges and the judicial system. He sued the state trial court to obtain a second criminal session in Taunton Superior Court to cut down the backlog of cases. Although he initially lost that battle, when a new judge was appointed, Bristol County got its second criminal session in Taunton.
Mr. Walsh has publicly criticized judges who he felt doled out lenient sentences or set dangerous criminals free, most recently Judge Edward Murphy, whom Mr. Walsh accused of letting four rapists go free. His office fed a damaging quote attributed to Judge Murphy to the Boston Herald, a quote that was later the subject of a $2.1 million libel verdict against the newspaper.
Political observers say his criticisms have likely killed his chances for higher office, and some attorneys have decried the moves as unnecessarily combative.
"In recent years, he's come off track in his attack on the judiciary," said Drew Segadelli, a Falmouth defense attorney who has represented a number of murder suspects in Bristol County. "They were unfounded, and they were for his own personal gain. It doesn't bode well with me, or other members of the bar. You can't just attack members of the judiciary like that." Mr. Segadelli said that the attacks have prevented Mr. Walsh from seeking higher office.
But Mr. Walsh said he won't be deterred from attacking judges or the judicial system, when he thinks it is warranted.
"I'm not bashful about it at all," Mr. Walsh said. "The way the system is set up now, there is very little accountability. Obviously, I think the noise I made made a difference." As to his chances for higher office, Mr. Walsh said, "I don't think there is a higher office than district attorney."
On the front lines
Mr. Walsh has listed at the top of his accomplishments the successful prosecution of pedophile priest James Porter in 1993. It was the first case in the nation that began unraveling decades of the Catholic Church's cover-up of clergy sexual abuse.
Porter victim Peter Calderone of Attleboro said he and other victims were initially concerned that Mr. Walsh, an Irish Catholic from a predominantly Catholic region, would not pursue charges.
"As a group, we were impatient with him at first," said Mr. Calderone. "We figured that a Catholic boy from Fall River/New Bedford wouldn't pursue this."
Unknown to the victims, though, Mr. Walsh's office was building a 28-count indictment of Mr. Porter and had Massachusetts state police officers waiting outside the former priest's Minnesota home to arrest him when the indictment was handed down.
"Through the diligence and the fantastic work of his office, Porter rotted away in jail," Mr. Calderone said. "In the end, I don't think he could have done a better job."
Another Porter victim, Frank Fitzpatrick of Cranston, R.I., said Mr. Walsh only prosecuted the Porter case in reaction to public pressure.
"His office initially told me they would not be willing to prosecute Porter," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "I'm not willing to make a hero of the guy. He was cornered into acting on this." He is also still upset Mr. Porter pleaded guilty, instead of going to trial.
Long after Mr. Porter began serving his sentence, Mr. Walsh was criticized when he released the names of other priests under suspicion, but had not been charged, for molesting children.
Success and criticism
Mr. Walsh also touts the 2001 Attleboro cult case as a successful prosecution. In that case, two parents starved their infant son because they believed they heard a message from God. His office eventually obtained a guilty verdict against the baby's father, Jacques Robidoux. Other successful cases are the prosecution of the longest-running homicide case in Massachusetts, the James Kater case, and the conviction of Raymond Cook for first degree murder of a Fall River police officer despite numerous expert witnesses who testified that Mr. Cook was insane.
Francis O'Boy of Taunton, the defense attorney for Mr. Robidoux, criticized Mr. Walsh, not for his prosecution of his client, but for not prosecuting Mr. Robidoux's father, Roland Robidoux, who was the leading force in the cult.
"When the parents were thinking about feeding the baby, he came down like Moses on high and said, 'No,'" Mr. O'Boy said. "In my mind, that warranted something."
Mr. Segadelli, the attorney who represented Mr. Cook, said if Mr. Cook hadn't killed a police officer, he probably would have been institutionalized, not sent to prison.
"Raymond Cook was absolutely not guilty by reason of insanity," he said, "That was one case where I look back and say, the public and jury blew that one. That's the last case he should be throwing the pompoms around on."
In New Bedford, Mr. Walsh has taken criticism because there are 19 unsolved homicides dating back to 2001 and was recently taunted at his campaign announcement by family members of the victims. The family of murder victim Marcus Cruz still has a large sign in front of their West End house, chiding Mr. Walsh for not arresting and prosecuting those responsible for his death.
Fernanda Gonzalez of New Bedford has been following Mr. Walsh's public appearances and confronting him. Her son, Alberto "Tito" Gonzalez Jr., was gunned down on his street in 2003. She is now a supporter of Mr. Sutter.
"He's done nothing. He's got a lot of information, and he's done nothing. He doesn't care," she said of Mr. Walsh. "The kids know who did it. He knows who did it. But there's been nothing done."
Other family members of murder victims in the city say Mr. Walsh and his office have performed well. Diane Carpenter's husband, George, was beaten to death by a group of men in a city housing project in 2001. Each of the attackers was charged and sentenced to prison time.
"I've never met Paul Walsh, but his staff was always available to me," Ms. Carpenter said. "There was a witness in the case who got scared a couple of times, and they always talked her through it. They did a wonderful job, I give them a lot of credit." She said she will likely support Mr. Walsh's re-election.
Mr. Walsh said he understands when family members are frustrated because their cases are unsolved.
"There is an anxiety level of any family of a homicide victim," he said. "It gives them angst for an answer. It's got to be directed somewhere."
Not using the one-year mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession is another area where Mr. Walsh takes criticism from victim's families.
In response, Mr. Walsh said it is a rare case when a suspect is arrested on a gun possession charge alone. His office has taken a position to pursue the more serious charge — murder, attempted murder, assault and battery, armed robbery — and "fold" the gun charge into the sentence for the more serious crime.
"I'd rather give a guy four to six years on armed robbery, than three years on armed robbery and a year on a gun charge," he said. "It's a distinction without a difference."
In Taunton, the community is upset about the David Smith case, according to the local newspaper. In 2004, Mr. Smith was a Taunton police officer who admitted to molesting his adopted daughter for a year. He spent six months in jail awaiting trial but was placed on probation and ordered to pay child support. The 27-year veteran police officer also lost his job.
"Many voters in Taunton remain incensed over the David Smith case, in which the ex-policeman was charged with sexual abuse of a child and given probation in a plea-bargaining agreement," read an editorial in the Taunton Gazette this year.
Mr. O'Boy said the Smith case is still "a very live topic in town."
"Generally, it's an albatross for Paul in Taunton," Mr. O'Boy said. "I've had clients come into my office and say, 'I want the deal that David Smith got.'"
Mr. Walsh said in the debate that the young girl recanted her testimony against Mr. Smith, and that a psychiatrist told prosecutors that testifying would be emotionally devastating to her. Dismissing the case or getting a not guilty verdict were not options, Mr. Walsh said, because either result would have meant the girl would have returned to Mr. Smith's care, and that he would have kept his job as a police officer.
"There were tough choices both ways," he said. "If he missteps at any time during his probation, he'll be back in court." Mr. Smith's probation lasts through 2009.
When local mobster Timothy Mello was sent to prison two years ago for racketeering by federal authorities, Mr. Walsh's office was criticized for not pursuing the case more aggressively. While he is considered by law enforcement to be aggressive on homicides and sexual predators, he is less aggressive on cases involving gambling or organized crime.
"I don't think he believed Timmy Mello was as deep-rooted as he was," said Mr. Costa, the retired state police officer. "It didn't seem to me that organized crime or gambling was a big priority of his. He was more concerned with victims' rights, the community, and the homicides. Organized crime and gambling was, sort of, mid-level."
Mr. Walsh's personal life has been attacked as well, most publicly when he rolled over his car in 1997 near T.F. Green Airport but got back in and drove it — with warped rims, a broken windshield and a busted headlight — 15 miles back over the state line into Bristol County.
Mr. Walsh takes the criticism in stride.
"Anyone in my position has to expect criticism for things like that," he said. "I think a DA has to have a thick skin. You get past it, you go out every day and you do your job."
Contact Aaron Nicodemus at email@example.com
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