Before a judge inside courtroom 640 of the Middlesex Superior Courthouse, the county’s top prosecutor, Marian T. Ryan, argued forcefully against a motion to exclude evidence in the upcoming trial of a man accused of killing a police officer.
“I would ask that the Commonwealth deny the defendant’s motion,” she urged Judge Thomas P. Billings.
It was the kind of perfunctory pre-trial task that would normally fall to one of the dozens of assistant district attorneys working under Ryan. But over the last year, since Governor Deval Patrick tapped her to fill the spot of top prosecutor in the county, Ryan has kept direct control over five of the cases she was working before her appointment.
It is a highly unusual decision for a district attorney. And it comes with political risks as she faces a competitive race to keep the job — an elected post that calls for managing dozens of prosecutors balanced with gladhanding constituents and facing the media. In Middlesex, the district attorney oversees about 250 employees, more than half of them prosecutors trying cases in the state’s most populous county.
“Geographically, demographically, and work-product wise, it’s a complicated and difficult place to run and manage,” said Gerard T. Leone, Ryan’s predecessor in the Middlesex DA’s office who is now a defense lawyer at Nixon Peabody specializing in white collar crime. “When you’re preparing for, and in the heat of trying a case, it is very difficult to carry out all those duties that you otherwise would because it’s so time intensive. You have to delegate duties to your staff.”
Aside from the regular duties of the office, Ryan has been in the spotlight over high profile murders, like the Nov. 18 killings of a mother and her 11-month-old twins in Arlington, as well as for criticism of her office for its handling of the Jared Remy case.
Ryan has acknowledged that her office should have asked a judge to hold Remy during an Aug. 14 arraignment on charges he beat his girlfriend. He is accused of killing her the following night.
None of the cases that Ryan is currently prosecuting are scheduled to go to trial until after the September Democratic primary, but losing a case can haunt a district attorney long after the verdict.
“That’s a tricky maneuver,” said criminal defense lawyer John Amabile. “If you lose . . . you will be viewed as the lawyer who failed to win a conviction in the case. When you yourself are taking personal responsibility for the case it can blow up in your face.”
Still Ryan, 59, who has spent her entire 34-year career as a prosecutor in Middlesex, shrugged off concerns that she is taking a risk. Her case load includes charges against three defendants whose alleged role in an armed robbery led to the 2010 shooting death of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire. A primary reason she kept her cases, Ryan said, is the longstanding relationships she developed with the victims and their families.
“These are . . . long-established cases that I have deep roots in,” Ryan said. “I am doing what’s best for those cases.”
And though it is unusual, it is not unheard of for a district attorney to try a case, and Ryan described her workload as manageable. One case, a 2011 armed robbery that led to a nonfatal shooting of a police officer, resulted in a guilty plea six months ago, and she plans to hand off a second case, a double homicide, to another prosecutor with deep ties to the case.
In her remaining three cases — the Maguire killing and a separate armed robbery — there are experienced prosecutors acting as second chairs helping her prepare for trial, she said.
Keeping the cases — rather than handing them off to an assistant — makes sense, said Ryan, particularly Maguire’s case, which she has been involved with since the 60-year-old officer was shot on Dec. 26, 2010.
“I’m very invested in that,” Ryan sad. “It is a complicated, fact-specific case.”
Maguire’s widow, Desiree Maguire, said she is grateful that Ryan has remained directly involved.
“My family and I would be distraught and very disappointed if she had stepped away from these cases,” Desiree Maguire said in an e-mail. “She knows all the details of these cases and has worked very hard to prosecute them.”
Ryan, a mother of two who lives with her husband in Belmont, will face a challenger in the September primary — Michael Sullivan, the Middlesex County clerk of the courts and former Cambridge mayor who is an experienced campaigner with deep family roots in the city. Sullivan’s uncle, Edward, was a beloved clerk of the courts still remembered in political circles around Middlesex, said Frank Talty, codirector of the Center for Public Opinion at University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive race,” Talty said.
Hanging on to some criminal cases may be a smart move for Ryan as she tries to define herself as an experienced prosecutor who deserves to keep the job, he said.
“I see a strategy and I think it’s shrewd,” Talty said. “If that is the essential distinction between Marian Ryan and Mike Sullivan, how better to make that point than by actually prosecuting serious crimes at the same time that she’s running?”
Ryan dismissed the notion that there was a political calculation to her decision to remain in the courtroom.
“This is not something that I’ve picked as something to do now,” she said. “I’ve been working with these families [and victims] for a long time.”
R. Michael Cassidy, a former prosecutor who is now a Boston College Law School professor, said Ryan’s decision could be good for morale in the district attorney’s office.
“Sometimes in large complex offices the staff can get the perception that the boss is a political leader and doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the trenches,” he said. “It’s good to send a message that says ‘I know what it’s like to be in there.’ ”
During her court appearance late last month, Ryan appeared confident, her hands gesturing emphatically, as she argued that a trooper was justified when he extracted key evidence from the cellphone of Scott Hanright, one of the three men charged in the killing of Maguire.
“We should not be distracted by the way the information was taken out,” Ryan told Billings, the judge.
Billings questioned defense counsel: “Why isn’t that true?”
Ryan beamed at the two prosecutors sitting next to her.
The thrill of arguing in the courtroom — something former district attorneys say can be difficult to give up — is not Ryan’s motivation, she says.
“I love prosecuting. I’ve always loved it,” she said. “But I love this job.”
Still, Ryan said she would not close the door on taking on new cases.
“I would never say never,” she said.