One of Governor Deval Patrick’s nominees for a judgeship has generated an unusual level of opposition — so much so that his confirmation hearing has been postponed a month to allow more time for the public to weigh in and all the witnesses to testify.
Joshua Wall, who has been tapped for a seat on the Superior Court, has served as Parole Board chairman since February 2011. Patrick chose him to lead that panel after ousting five of its members who had voted to release a career criminal who then killed a Woburn police officer. Before that, Wall was an assistant district attorney for 18 years in Suffolk County, responsible for handling numerous homicide cases.
Defense lawyers have flooded the Governor’s Council, an obscure eight-member panel that confirms judgeships, with letters and phone calls of opposition, citing cases in which they say Wall placed his drive to win ahead of basic fairness.
The parents of David Woodman, a 22-year-old Emmanuel College student who died after being taken into police custody after a Celtics championship celebration in 2008, have also sent a letter of opposition, and are planning to testify at Wall’s confirmation hearing on Sept. 17.
The hearing was initially scheduled for Aug. 13 but was postponed because councilors say they wanted to start in the morning and are expecting the hearing to last at least a full day.
“It is not in keeping with what I’ve seen with nominations to have this many people coming in opposition,” said Councilor Jennie L. Caissie, who added that she has received calls, e-mails, and letters from lawyers who both oppose and support Wall.
“It seems to be a real steady flow, and it started as soon as his name was announced,” she said.
Wall declined to comment, saying it would not be appropriate while his nomination is pending.
Wall’s supporters, pushing back against the image of him as an overly zealous prosecutor, cite eight wrongful conviction cases that he handled between 2002 and 2011. They say Wall worked with defense lawyers to exchange exculpatory evidence, conduct forensic testing of old evidence, and file joint motions to vacate convictions.
Supporters also point to Wall’s work as chairman of a task force that revamped the way Boston police officers and Suffolk prosecutors use eyewitness identifications.
“Josh Wall’s superb performance as a prosecutor, his nation-leading work on wrongful convictions and eyewitness identification procedures, and his professional stewardship of the Parole Board make him an excellent candidate for the Superior Court,” said Jesse Mermell, a Patrick spokeswoman. “We are confident that Attorney Wall will be found to be highly qualified and well-suited to serve as an associate justice at his upcoming nomination hearing before the Governor’s Council.”
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who was Wall’s boss for nine years, said he believes Wall’s opponents are unfairly criticizing him because of his successful career as a prosecutor.
“He’s one of the most balanced, ethical, and fair-minded people I’ve seen in government. Period,” said Conley, who plans to testify in support of Wall.
Caissie and other councilors said it is too soon to say if Wall’s nomination is in jeopardy. It is rare, but not unheard of, for the council to reject a nominee. Caissie said she is keeping an open mind until Wall has a chance to respond to his critics at his hearing. Those critics include lawyers and others who question Wall’s demeanor and impartiality.
Woodman’s parents, Jeff and Cathy, say they feel Wall, as the point person who oversaw the Suffolk district attorney’s office investigation into their son’s death, “treated us as the opposition,” not as a grieving family.
“We felt treated as inferior to Mr. Wall by his condescending remarks during meetings, and body language that suggested he didn’t have time for us,” Cathy Woodman said in a letter to councilors. “We would have to remind ourselves that we weren’t on trial, that we did deserve some answers, even if it reflected badly on our son, we wanted to know.”
David Woodman had been subdued by police while walking to his home in Brookline after visiting a bar on the night of June 17, 2008, when the Celtics won their last championship.
Police placed him under arrest for drinking in public, there was a struggle, and at one point he stopped breathing.
A medical examiner found that Woodman suffered brain damage due to lack of oxygen, and that he had an arrhythmia, a disruption of the heart’s electrical activity. He was hospitalized and died after another arrhythmia 11 days later.
Boston police and separate investigations by Suffolk prosecutors and an independent panel found that Woodman may have stopped breathing for several minutes before officers realized his condition, but that his death was not a result of the struggle. In 2010, the city agreed to pay the Woodman family $3 million to avoid a protracted legal battle, but the family continues to assert the investigation was a “cover-up.”
Willie Davis said he is among a long list of defense lawyers who plan to testify in opposition to Wall’s nomination. Davis cites Wall’s handling of the 2004 trial of two suspected gang members charged with killing Trina Persad, a 10-year-old girl allegedly caught in their crossfire in a Roxbury park. The case against one of the men ended in a mistrial after the Suffolk district attorney’s office learned that three jurors had failed to disclose their criminal records.
A 2007 review by the Supreme Judicial Court found that prosecutors may check the criminal backgrounds of jurors. But Davis accuses Wall of belatedly conducting the checks because he was worried he was going to lose the case.
“My basic concern is this guy will do anything in the world to win,” Davis said. “He does not look at fairness.”