PAROLE BOARD chairman Josh Wall displays the work ethic, intelligence, and respect for the law that would make him a strong Superior Court justice. But resistance to his judicial nomination from some members of the defense bar could make for fireworks at his scheduled Sept. 17 confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council. The strategy of the defense will be to show that Wall, 54, places personal ambition above fairness.
Wall, who served as a Suffolk County prosecutor for 18 years, exhibits an earnestness that some perceive as arrogance. Let’s just say he lacks the common touch. Wall’s challenge will be to convince the Governor’s Council, which approves judgeships, that he possesses the patience, compassion, and open-mindedness that define a good judicial temperament. The councilors can’t possibly find fault with Wall’s knowledge of the law. But they could be convinced by Wall’s detractors that he won’t give defendants a fair shake.
The big guns are out for Wall. Prominent Boston defense attorney Willie Davis — no shrinking violet himself — derided Wall in a recent Globe article as an unsparing prosecutor. Leslie Walker, who heads Prisoners’ Legal Services in Massachusetts, said Wall consistently displays “a level of arrogance and contempt for criminal defendants who appear before him” at Parole Board hearings.
The vehemence of the opposition seems over the top. It is almost impossible to serve as first assistant district attorney and chairman of the Parole Board — jobs in the direct line of fire — without angering and disappointing some people. The life of a Superior Court justice carries the potential for controversy. But Wall’s duties practically guarantee it. It’s likely that Wall would welcome an opportunity at this point in his career to shift to neutral ground.
Wall has shown a capacity for fairness on the job. In 2004, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley tapped him to play a major role in a blue-ribbon panel of police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys whose goal was to reform eyewitness identification practices that had led to a slew of faulty convictions. At the time, few prosecutors in the nation had the courage to shine a spotlight on the investigative practices of law enforcement. The resulting changes to police line-up procedures were so profound as to elicit high praise from the Innocence Project, a national litigation group dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals.
Wall’s detractors cite what they perceive as his hostile body language when questioning convicted murderers who seek parole. But the Governor’s Council would be wise to steer clear of such subjective concerns and focus on more solid evidence such as the eyewitness reform panel, where Wall placed justice above conviction rates. Deeds are a better judge of a candidate’s suitability for the bench than posture and facial expressions.
Some of the opposition to Wall stems from his appointment by Governor Patrick to chair the state’s Parole Board in 2011. Wall inherited a broken agency. A few months earlier, an irreformable parolee who never should have seen the light of day murdered Woburn Police officer John Maguire. The public was enraged. Patrick cleaned house at the Parole Board, placing Wall in charge of restoring public confidence. Wall did just that. But prisoner rights advocates say it came at the cost of denying parole to deserving inmates and delaying their hearings.
Membership on the quasi-judicial Parole Board should be considered good training for the bench. Hands-on experience can be gained, for example, through parole revocation hearings that resemble judicial proceedings. But Wall said that the greatest lessons come from “seeing first hand the effects of incarceration on the prisoners and their family members.” It’s also an opportunity, he said, to see which sentence lengths are most likely to yield a rehabilitated prisoner.
“We should be trying to reduce unnecessary and unproductive incarceration,” he said.
That doesn’t sound like the words of a judicial caveman.
Wall’s detractors say his more moderate stands of late are meant to blunt opposition to his quest for a judicial appointment. This week, the board unanimously voted to grant parole to 38-year-old Joseph Donovan. It came on the heels of two other well-reasoned decisions to grant parole to inmates convicted of committing first degree murder before their 18th birthdays. The votes were consistent with a recent high court ruling that struck down life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
Wall clearly rubs some people — defense attorneys for the most part — the wrong way. But his overall career strongly suggests that he is open-minded, capable of sound judgment, and worthy of a seat at the bench.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.