Re-opening a case that local officials long ago closed, a special prosecutor has taken the unusual step of calling for a judicial inquest into the 2009 death of a young mental health patient at Bridgewater State Hospital, who died as prison guards forcibly strapped his wrists and ankles to a bed.
Judge Mark S. Coven, the first justice of the Quincy District Court, will oversee the seldom used review process. He called a meeting for Friday to review a list of possible witnesses and to schedule the inquest. Coven previously has overseen two such fact-finding reviews, including the 2010 inquest into the shotgun death of the brother of former Braintree resident Amy Bishop.
Special prosecutor Martin F. Murphy asked for the judicial inquest, essentially setting aside an earlier decision by Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz not to pursue charges in the death of Joshua K. Messier, who had been sent to Bridgewater for a mental competency evaluation.
The state attorney general appointed Murphy to review the case after a Globe story showed that guards manhandled Messier while clinicians delayed medical care for several minutes as his face turned blue. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
“It was my judgment that the best way to get at the truth about what happened to Joshua Messier is to take testimony under oath before a judge,” said Murphy, a former Middlesex County prosecutor who supervised more than 100 homicide cases.
If Coven decides that Bridgewater prison guards or clinicians were criminally responsible for Messier’s death, it would be up to Murphy to present the case to a Plymouth County grand jury, Murphy said.
“At the end of the day, my appointment as a special assistant attorney general will include the decision on whether to prosecute — if Judge Coven concludes that prosecution is warranted,” Murphy said.
Former attorney general Martha Coakley appointed Murphy to look into the case after four prominent groups that advocate for the mentally ill requested that she name a special prosecutor, accusing state officials of presiding over a “whitewash” of the circumstances surrounding Messier’s death.
The Globe revealed in February 2014 that Bridgewater officials violated more than a half dozen laws and policies after responding to an emergency that began when Messier punched a prison guard. The Globe also reported that Department of Correction officials covered up the results of an internal investigation that cited two of the guards for misconduct.
Cruz said that he did not pursue criminal charges in the case because state medical examiner Mindy J. Hull, after initially ruling the death a homicide, later told investigators she believed that Messier was responsible for his own death. But the medical examiner’s office refused to comment on Cruz’s claim and never retracted Hull’s finding that the death was a homicide.
On Thursday, Cruz’s office declined to comment.
The Globe story led to a massive overhaul at the Department of Correction, which runs Bridgewater, including the firing of three prison guards, an assistant deputy commissioner, and former commissioner Luis S. Spencer.
On Thursday, Messier’s parents expressed cautious optimism about the judical inquest, noting that they have waited more than five years for a full accounting of their son’s death.
“While the Messier family had hoped that grand jury proceedings and indictments would be forthcoming, they are grateful that the special prosecutor has chosen not only to move forward and further investigate the wrongful death of their son, but also to conduct that investigation in a forum where they will have an opportunity to participate,” said Benjamin R. Novotny, a lawyer representing Messier’s father, Kevin Messier.
Unlike grand jury proceedings, which are private and which remain secret whether or not indictments are issued, inquests are open to the parents of the victim and to those who may be targets of the judicial inquiry. And state law says that records of the proceedings may be released to the public after prosecutors — in this case, Murphy — decide whether or not to press criminal charges.
Lisa Brown, Messier’s mother, said she hopes that her lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr., will be allowed to question witnesses during the proceedings.
“While I believe that there is more than enough evidence to support a direct prosecution, we will support and try to participate in this process,” she said.
MacLeish said he was generally encouraged by Murphy’s decision, noting that grand juries have been criticized for giving law enforcement officers undue consideration when deciding whether to issue indictments. But he also said it is crucial that Coven allow lawyers for Messier’s parents to question witnesses.
“We intend to make that request to the judge,” he said.
Coven, who normally sits in Quincy District Court, was appointed to lead the judicial inquest in Plymouth County by Judge Paul C. Dawley, chief justice of the state’s district court division, perhaps because of past experience.
In 2010, Coven conducted a three-day inquest into the 1986 death of Seth Bishop, who was allegedly shot-gunned to death in his family’s Braintree home by his sister, Amy Bishop. Coven’s inquest led to a murder indictment but Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey decided not to prosecute after Bishop was convicted in the fatal shooting of three University of Alabama professors, apparently because she was denied tenure.
In 2002, Coven led an inquest that prompted then-Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating to file a manslaughter charge against Barbara Asher, a self-described dominatrix accused of dismembering and disposing of the body of Michael Lord, a retired telephone lineman who disappeared after visiting Asher’s Quincy condominium. Lord’s body was never discovered and Asher was later acquitted.
Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state office of Public Safety, which oversees the Department of Correction, said state officials stand ready to assist in the inquest.
“We will be fully cooperative in providing anything requested in connection with this inquiry,” Harris said.