Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins sent a letter Wednesday to lawyers who represent poor defendants explaining that she didn’t mean to call them “overwhelmingly privileged” on a public radio program or to chastise them all for being inattentive to their “poor, Black and brown” clients.
Rollins’ remarks on WGBH-FM’s “Boston Public Radio” last week set off a round of criticism from some of the district attorney’s staunchest supporters — defense attorneys, including some who took to Twitter to express their outrage. They pointed out that public defenders are poorly paid and motivated by idealism.
In a letter to two groups that provide lawyers to poor defendants, Rollins claimed she was talking only about a particular case she heard about when she was a guest on Jim Braude and Margery Eagan’s show last Thursday. During the show, a caller, “James from Webster,” complained that his lawyer hadn’t called him back.
“I simply wanted to help James contact his attorney.” Rollins wrote in the letter to Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services and Victoria Kelleher, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"I should have made clearer in the moment that my response to James was never directed at, or intended for, the overwhelming majority of court-appointed lawyers who work tirelessly for their clients: accepting every collect call, working around the clock, speaking to families and loved ones, and currently putting themselves in harm’s way every time they visit a correctional facility to serve their clients. "
But then she went on to say, “We can all do better. We must all do better."
Many who listened to the program did not get the impression that Rollins was talking only about James’ lawyer. Benedetti responded with an angry letter. Her attack, he said, “strikes directly at the heart of our organization."
James’ call so incensed Rollins that she launched a tirade, repeatedly commenting on public defenders — calling them “overwhelmingly privileged,” — who claim they are too busy to call their poor clients back.
“When you hear in my voice my disgust and outrage about CPCS not calling people back — their overwhelmingly privileged staff that aren’t calling back poor, Black, and brown people because they’re saying they’re overworked and busy," Rollins said on Braude and Eagan’s show. "It’s my people who are losing no matter what. I’m not going to sit silently on this.”
"I’m not going to let these defendants suffer in silence because their criminal defense lawyers, who are paid by our tax dollars, refuse to answer their calls,” she said.
Rollins, who took office in January 2019, has won admirers among defense attorneys with her calls to reform the justice system and reduce prosecution of relatively minor offenses that she says are overwhelmingly used against minority defendants.
But on the radio show, she had little but criticism for public defenders, including the fact that most of them are white.
“Ask some of the criminal defendants who are incarcerated — is this a rainbow coalition of people who are representing these individuals?” said Rollins. "I refuse to pretend like this is Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King are working for CPCS right now and running this operation.”
A CPCS spokesman said nonwhite lawyers make up 15 percent of their staff attorneys. Rollins’ office earlier this week refused to answer any questions, or provide comparable racial data.
On Thursday, a spokesman said of the 12 members of Rollins’ executive team, six, including Rollins, are people of color. The team includes four former criminal defense lawyers, he said.
The day after the radio show, Benedetti responded with an angry letter.
“These unprovoked attacks on your fellow attorneys did not go unnoticed, and I am afraid you may have alienated some who believed in your campaign promises and then found themselves in the crosshairs of an off the cuff diatribe,” he wrote.
Initially, Rollins and her staff stood by her remarks, even continuing the fight on Twitter.
“Thank you for undermining my work,” tweeted Jim Corbo, a CPCS staff attorney in Brockton. “I thought of your comments all day as I took collect calls from clients in my basement on my cell phone, in between cell calls with clients’ loved ones.”
Rollins shot back: “Right Jim. Because you can speak for all your poor, Black & Brown clients. They don’t need to speak for themselves or have their experiences heard by the NAACP & electeds of color across the state. They have you to save them.”
Many Globe readers also expressed outrage over the comments. “Rachael Rollins just lost my vote to re-elect her as D. A. of Suffolk County," wrote Tracey Hughes. “While I share her concern that the number of public defenders in the county is only 15%, categorizing those who choose to work for the CPCS as ‘overwhelmingly privileged’ is outrageous.”
“Most of these young, idealistic lawyers graduate with a mound of debt. But their belief in legal representation for all, despite a defendant’s ability to pay, leads them to a job where they have few resources and are paid a quarter of what they could make in any Boston law firm,” Hughes wrote.
On Wednesday night, Benedetti sent Rollins’ letter to the lawyers who work for CPCS, telling them he, Rollins, and the leaders of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had a “constructive conversation” about her statements and the “significant impact” they had on public defenders.
“I know she heard the many voices that came from our ranks and beyond. I hope something was learned from this unfortunate episode and I believe that we will move forward in a positive way,” wrote Benedetti, who provided a link to Rollins’ letter.
In her letter, Rollins said she has “strongly advocated” for increasing the CPCS budget and has "personally fought with several of my fellow district attorneys about respecting the hard work of your staff and your organization.
“What this global pandemic has taught us is that a public health approach to criminal justice only works if everyone is working toward the common goal of keeping our communities healthy, safe, and strong,” she wrote.
“So let’s work together to identify the ways in which we can work toward this goal. Where we have common ground, let’s continue to till it. And in spots that are more rocky and unstable, let’s commit to open and honest communication so that we can find a way forward.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.