For close to a decade now, Superior Court Judge Richard Chin has been beset by a gnawing worry, one unique to his profession.
“I don’t want my obituary to say I’m the guy who let Ally Zapp’s killer go free,” Chin said. “I understand why her family would think that. But it isn’t true, and I’ve been waiting for 10 years for a chance to set the record straight.”
Now, with Ally’s killer having recently lost the final appeal of his first-degree murder conviction, Chin — who presided over the trial — is finally free to speak publicly about the case. He is beginning here, with this column.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the ALLY Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to battling sex-related offenses. It is devoted to the memory of Alexandra Zapp, a beloved 30 year-old who was murdered in a rest stop in Bridgewater in July 2002 by a longtime sex offender named Paul Leahy.
In that column, Zapp’s mother said: “I had to sit in a courtroom with the two men who killed my daughter” — meaning Leahy, the convicted killer, and Chin who, in her view, had once passed up a chance to take Leahy off the street.
That remark prompted a highly unusual exchange. First through a court spokeswoman and then alone, Chin asked to sit down with me and discuss the case.
Leahy had appeared in Chin’s courtroom several times before the murder of Zapp. Less then two years before, Leahy was convicted on two charges, operating under the influence, and annoying a person of the opposite sex.
Noting his history of sex offenses, the state moved to have him incarcerated under a provision that allows extended prison time for sexually dangerous persons.
Chin said he delayed ruling on the motion because the state lacked a crucial piece of evidence: an expert report from a psychiatrist establishing that Leahy should be held.
That wasn’t the only obstacle. While the motion to hold Leahy was pending, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in an unrelated case — Commonwealth v. McLeod — that the statute for holding sexually dangerous criminals could be applied only to those whose most recent offense was for sex-related offenses. Thus the law no longer applied to Leahy’s case. That is corroborated both by court records and by the prosecutor who argued the motion, Jean Holmes, who is now an administrator at the Sex Offender Registry Board.
“The [ruling] stated that we could not go forward with a sexually dangerous persons petition if the individual was serving on a nonsexual offense when we filed the petition,” Holmes said last week. “We could not go forward.”
Chin did not release Leahy, or miss a chance to keep him incarcerated. He never had an opportunity to order him held, as Zapp’s family has believed.
Chin first became aware of the misunderstanding during the Zapp murder trial, when several media outlets reported that he was responsible for Leahy’s freedom. He said he thought the issue would blow over, and, at any rate, was not free to challenge those accounts then.
“It’s part of being a judge, I’m not the only judge this has happened to,” Chin said. “Judges sacrifice freedoms that other people take for granted. I’ve always wanted to sit down with her mother and explain what really happened. I used to think I would write her a letter when I retired. I had no idea until I read the column that she still believed I let him out.”
I called Zapp’s mother, Andrea Casanova, and told her what the judge had said. Her response: “I’m grateful to him, because we’re all about getting to the truth,” she said. “This is a good example of the unintended consequence of laws. While [Leahy’s] in prison, the law changes and he goes free. This is really, really important stuff. I’m happy to know Judge Chin wasn’t responsible.”
Casanova said many states have wrestled with the issue that was before the SJC — when sex offenders should be subject to extended incarceration.
She believes such sentences should be tied to risk assessments without regard to one’s most recent offense.
At 62, Chin is nearing the end of a distinguished career. Appointed by Governor Michael Dukakis in 1989, he was the first Asian-American judge in the state.
He grew up above his family’s laundry in Brockton. His parents had fled Mao’s China for Massachusetts. He still lives in Brockton.
“I can look across a parking lot from my lobby and see where I grew up,” he said.
He told me he takes solace in a passage from the SJC decision, the one that denies Leahy’s final appeal. “This was the brutal murder of a young woman with no mitigating circumstances,” the justices wrote. “The defendant received a fair trial.”
Chin called the case the worst of the 30 or so murder cases he has heard.
“It truly was a brutal murder. But he got a fair trial. That is all I was trying to do.”