There have been indications for a while now that some Massachusetts district attorneys do not like the way Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins does her job. Now they are trying to bully her.
As for Rollins — let’s just say she’s not taking it.
The district attorneys’ displeasure with Rollins burst into open battle last week, with a scorching crossfire of filings in a case with life-altering implications for some inmates: those who killed in their late teenage years and are now serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
District attorneys Michael O’Keefe, Jonathan Blodgett, Michael Morrissey, and Timothy Cruz correctly believe that Rollins will not take as hard a line in the case as they would, that she will seek to lift the the no-parole mandate for some inmates. So they filed an extraordinary motion to intervene in the case — to reach into her jurisdiction to head off an outcome they won’t like. In a rocket of a court filing, Rollins responded by accusing the four men of seeking to undermine her because she is a Black woman.
Read the full motion from the four DAs below:
“The suggestion that their assistance is required is as misogynistic and paternalistic as it is racist,” she wrote in the July 2 document.
Read the full response from Rollins below:
Before we get any further into the dispute, let’s look at the case. It concerns the prison sentences of two youths convicted of first-degree murder for the 2011 shooting death of 16-year-old Jaivon Blake on a Dorchester street. One of the defendants — who was found to have fired the deadly shots — was 17 at the time of the crime. Because of a 2013 decision in the state’s highest court, which found that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional for those under 18, he was sentenced to life in prison, but will be eligible for parole after 15 years.
His codefendant, who was found to have supplied the gun and identified Blake as the target but did not shoot him, was also found guilty of first-degree murder. But because he was 18 at the time of the crime, he was not covered by the SJC decision, and so was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Criminal justice reformers have argued — and there is science to back them up — that the same deficits of brain development and judgment that afflict 17-year-olds impair those aged 18 to 21, too, and that the allowances the system makes for 17-year-olds should be extended to that group.
The SJC, faced with this stark divide in penalties to two men separated by just nine months in age, has decided to review that age cutoff and has remanded the case back to Suffolk Superior Court — Rollins’s jurisdiction — to assemble the scientific testimony that would help judges to determine whether to raise the age at which a murder defendant is still considered a juvenile.
Rollins, elected (overwhelmingly) on promises to reform the county’s criminal justice system, has been clear that she supports raising that age cutoff, and that the disparity in sentences in this case is brutally unfair.
While two DAs have filed briefs with the court supporting that position, four others want to shut down the possibility that any of the people they have put away for the rest of their natural lives, including 92 for first-degree murder, could now be eligible for parole because they were 21 or younger when they committed their crimes.
So hard-liner Cape and Islands DA O’Keefe and his three colleagues sought to intervene in the Suffolk case — not to file amicus briefs arguing their case, which is the normal route for registering disagreement, but to actually join the case and argue in another district’s courthouse. Experts say that kind of intervention is unprecedented.
“The four DAs have no basis to intervene in the criminal case of another DA. Period. None,” said retired federal judge Nancy Gertner, who now teaches at Harvard Law School. “That is insulting, and over the top.”
To be fair, Rollins’s rejection of their attempts to interfere was over the top too, as official court filings go. But Rollins, who says the other DAs never gave her the courtesy of warning her about the unprecedented step they were taking, is right to be angry.
District attorneys are elected by voters of their own counties. Where would it end if they started showing up in the courtrooms of prosecutors with whom they disagreed, because they thought the outcome of a case outside their district would be inconvenient for them?
For their part, the four amigos are outraged that their motives are being questioned.
“The accusation of racism and misogyny is baffling and astonishing,” they said in a filing this week, accusing Rollins of “an unwarranted ad hominem attack, full of vituperative, impertinent and irrelevant character assassination.” They say they merely seek to represent the victims’ families, for whom parole hearings would be devastating.
But Rollins’s allegation of racism doesn’t come out of nowhere: O’Keefe has been consistently clear that he sees no systemic racism in the criminal justice system. In a Globe op-ed last year that attacked Rollins without mentioning her, he deployed the dog-whistle language that conservatives love to explain why our courtrooms and prisons are stacked with Black and brown people. They are victims not of racism, he wrote, but of “social determinants” like “the disintegration of the family, a lack of respect for discipline and education, and the glorification in some communities of a culture that celebrates disrespectful language and misogyny under the guise of art.”
Blaming rap? Not even subtle.
Read the response to Rollins from the four DAs below:
The four Rollins critics are right that victims’ families will be pained by parole hearings they weren’t expecting, and that their wishes should count. But let’s be clear about what might happen here if the SJC decides to raise the age at which defendants are considered juveniles: Nobody will automatically get out of prison. Inmates previously denied a chance at parole will win only the opportunity to make their cases after serving many years. Those cases, like so many that come before this state’s parole board, may yet be denied. Rollins says she may even argue against release for some of them.
What O’Keefe and his crew are fighting here is the mere possibility of release. And they’ve done it in the most insulting way possible. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the first Black woman DA is the target of their unprecedented attack. Maybe.
Late Wednesday, the SJC batted back the four DAs, denying their request to intervene in the case. As has happened before when her detractors have pressed their luck, sanity — and Rollins — has prevailed.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.