A federal judge on Friday voided the life sentence of Alfred W. Trenkler, saying he should die a free man despite building a bomb that killed Boston police officer Jeremiah Hurley and maimed his partner in Roslindale in 1991.
In a 53-page ruling, US District Court Judge William E. Smith said Trenkler would not be granted medical release, a petition that drew public attention last month, because he has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and the prison in Tucson where he is serving his sentence currently has no reported infections.
But Smith found an “extraordinary and compelling reason” under the First Step Act, a sentencing reform measure passed in 2018, to void Trenkler’s current life sentence and replace it with a fixed term of 41 years. Trenkler, 65, has served 27 years since his 1993 conviction. Federal sentences are reduced by about 15 percent for good behavior.
“The nature of the crime here was truly horrible, in design and effect,” Smith wrote Friday. “The bomb easily could have killed more people, including children. This depravity cannot be ignored.”
But Smith said his duty was to “administer justice with a measure of mercy” and determined that “a sentence of 41 years would be one that reflects the seriousness of the offenses, promotes respect for the law, and provides just punishment.”
Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor and retired federal judge, welcomed Smith’s decision to void the life sentence, but said she remains convinced that Trenkler is innocent and that he still faces life-threatening health challenges.
“This was a win, not the win we wanted, but this was a win‚” said Gertner, who has represented Trenkler since 2011. “There’s an enormous difference between life imprisonment and a term of years, even a long term of years. That is a victory.”
The Boston police expressed disappointment with Smith’s ruling.
“Our thoughts remain, as they always have, with the families of these officers and with the countless members of the Boston Police Department who put their lives on the line every day,” the department said in a statement.
Acting US Attorney Nathaniel R. Mendell also called the decision disappointing. “We are reviewing the decision and considering our legal options,” said Mendell, whose office has opposed Trenkler’s bid for freedom. “This is a disappointing development for the victims’ families, and our thoughts are with them.”
The ruling comes after relatives of Hurley and Francis X. Foley, a fellow member of the department’s bomb squad, pleaded with Smith to let Trenkler’s life sentence stand. Foley lost an eye when a suspicious package found in the driveway of a Roslindale home on Oct. 28, 1991 detonated as the bomb squad started examining it.
Foley’s son, Frank, said his once-strong father suffers from severe anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder and often barricades himself in his room.
“He’s riddled from fear, not from Mr. Trenkler, but people like Mr. Trenkler,” the younger Foley, a Boston firefighter, told Smith, the Globe reported last month. “My Dad lives with these nightmares of his friend.”
In a footnote to his ruling, Smith said he was moved by the appeals from the Hurley and Foley families and friends of the officers.
Nothing in the decision “should be read in any way to reflect a lack of empathy for the surviving victim and victims’ families who have been so tragically impacted by this crime,” Smith wrote. “I feel their pain as much as anyone in my position can.”
However, “my duty is to look at the entire picture ... including the impact on victims, and to the best of my ability, do justice,” he added. “I hope the surviving victim and the victims’ families can understand the reasons for the court’s decision.”
Trenkler was convicted of building the bomb for Thomas A. Shay Jr., who wanted to kill his father so he could collect $400,000 in life insurance, Smith wrote. The bomb was in the elder Shay’s driveway when Hurley and Foley were among the officers called to investigate the device.
Shay was convicted and later pleaded guilty after winning a new trial on appeal. He was released from federal custody in 2009, according to the US Bureau of Prisons. Shay had a history of mental illness.
Trenkler has maintained his innocence and with the help of his family and supporters who share that belief, has repeatedly challenged the fairness of his trial and the strength of the evidence arrayed against him.
In 2007, Judge Rya W. Zobel concluded Trenkler had received an illegal sentence — the trial judge had imprisoned him for life when the law said only juries could do so. His new sentence was 37 years behind bars. The First Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned Zobel’s ruling and reinstated the life sentence.
Smith recounted Trenkler’s complex post-conviction journey while noting that the First Step Act, passed in 2018, gave judges the discretion to grant compassionate relief or change sentences in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances.