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Prosecutors drop homicide charge against man accused of driving into a State Police trooper, who later died

The decision came days after the chief medical examiner’s office reversed its findings in the case, writing that Trooper Thomas W. Devlin‘s death was not only caused by injuries he suffered — as it originally found — but also a rare and fatal brain disease.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

LOWELL — Middlesex County prosecutors on Friday dropped a motor vehicle homicide charge against a Haverhill man accused of driving into a State Police trooper, who died more than two years after the July 2018 crash.

The decision came days after the chief medical examiner’s office reversed its findings in the case, writing that Thomas W. Devlin‘s death was likely not only caused by the injuries he suffered — as it originally found — but also a rare and fatal brain disease.

The medical examiner, who did not perform an autopsy in the case, said the manner of his death now “could not be determined.” The office in recent years has significantly scaled back how often it conducts autopsies, to the point it now has among the lowest autopsy rates in the country among statewide medical examiner offices, the Globe has reported.

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The district attorney’s decision to drop the motor vehicle homicide charge against Kevin Francis of Haverhill quickly stirred frustration within the State Police’s ranks, with union leaders arguing that Devlin, 58, would still be alive if he had not suffered such severe injuries in the crash.

Devlin died in September 2020, more than two years after he was struck as he stood outside his cruiser while conducting a motor vehicle stop on Route 3 in Billerica. At the time of his death, State Police officials said Devlin had undergone “many surgeries” and ultimately died from his injuries. Devlin was married and a father of four children.

Trooper Thomas W. Devlin.Massachusetts State Police photograph via AP

Dr. Rebecca Dedrick, an assistant state medical examiner, initially ruled Devlin’s death as an “accident,” writing that it was caused by complications of blunt force injuries sustained years earlier.

Francis, 56, had charges against him upgraded in April 2021 to include motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation. He had originally been charged with negligent operation of a motor vehicle, among other counts, following the crash.

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But on Monday, Dedrick changed her findings, writing that Devlin’s death was caused by a “probable prion disease” as well as complications from his injuries, according to his amended death certificate. Prion disease is a type of rare brain disease that the National Institutes of Health says is difficult to diagnose and “inevitably fatal.” Only about 300 cases are reported each year in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What prompted the change is unclear. A spokeswoman for Dr. Mindy Hull, the state’s chief medical examiner, declined to address questions, citing the open case. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Edward Kim, an assistant district attorney, told a Lowell District Court judge in a brief hearing Friday that prosecutors were dropping the motor vehicle homicide charge against Francis after “further investigation as to the cause of death.”

“The Commonwealth will not be able to meet its burden at trial,” Kim said.

Francis is still scheduled to go to trial on March 30 on his other charges. His attorney, Michael Bowser, declined to comment Friday.

The developments come at an already painful time for the department. On Wednesday, roughly 2,000 members of law enforcement attended the funeral of state Trooper Tamar Bucci, who was killed last week when her cruiser was struck by a tanker-trailer on Interstate 93 in Stoneham.

Kevin Francis appeared in a hearing where the state dropped motor vehicle homicide charges against him in the death of state Trooper Thomas Devlin on Friday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The State Police Association of Massachusetts, the union representing roughly 1,800 personnel, said in a statement that Ryan’s decision to drop the charges against Francis was “disheartening,” and argued that the “facts of the case speak for themselves.”

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“Had Trooper Devlin not been hospitalized due to the severe injuries in the first place, he would be alive today,” the union said in its statement. “Trooper Devlin’s three decades of distinguished service to the Commonwealth was cut short by Francis, who struck him as he stood outside his cruiser while conducting a motor vehicle stop, injuries which would eventually lead to his untimely passing.”

David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said Friday that the department was still gathering information about the dismissal of the charges, and that it still regards Devlin’s passing as a line-of-duty death.

“We’re cognizant of how difficult this development is for those who loved and were loved by Trooper Devlin, as well for the members of the MSP family who cared so deeply for him,” Procopio said. “Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by this ruling.”

Efforts to reach an attorney for Devlin’s family were not immediately successful Friday.

Devlin graduated from the State Police Academy in 1985 and was assigned to the Concord Barracks for most of his career. At the time of his death, Colonel Christopher S. Mason said Devlin was devoted to his family and “epitomized what it meant to be a loving husband and father.”

“It was in service to the public, in the act of keeping our roads safe, that he gave his last, and the ultimate, sacrifice,” Mason said then.

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According to records, the medical examiner’s office did not perform an autopsy on Devlin’s body before issuing its ruling.

Autopsies have become increasingly less frequent under Hull, who was appointed to the lead office in 2017. In each of the past three years, the office performed them in 26 to 27 percent of cases, trailing its counterparts in other states that, on average, performed them 38 percent of the time.

The shift has helped speed the time the office can produce reports on how people have died. But experts warn that doing fewer autopsies, and instead increasingly relying on less-thorough exams, carries the inherent risk of missing causes that an autopsy can otherwise identify or rule out.

Instead of autopsies, the office has increasingly opted to examine the surface of bodies, while conducting toxicology or minimally invasive testing. In nearly 1,200 cases last year, a medical examiner also did not examine a body in person before identifying a cause and manner of death, instead relying on medical records and photographs taken by staff — a process known as a chart review.

It was not immediately clear Friday what type of exam was conducted in Devlin’s case.

Hull’s office has previously told the Globe that, despite the decline in autopsies, it still performs them in certain cases, such as homicides or deaths in which criminal or civil legal proceedings are likely.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.