It’s been nearly 70 years since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court removed a district attorney from elected office. Now, the brother of a man who was killed by a Fall River police officer in November is petitioning the court to wield that power again.
In a complaint filed last month with the SJC, attorney Eric B. Mack called for the ouster of Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, alleging that he has placed “his political and personal interests above his obligation to be impartial.”
Quinn, who strongly denies the allegations contained in the petition, investigated the fatal shooting by police of Mack’s brother, Anthony Harden, 30, and concluded it was a “justified use of deadly force.” Quinn said the officer opened fire after Harden repeatedly attempted to stab her partner in the head and neck with a knife.
Mack’s complaint disputed the official account of the confrontation and asserted that Quinn presides over an office bound by “corruption and abuse of power.”
He also accuses Quinn of covering up details about a fatal police shooting in 2017 and refusing to investigate a Fall River detective suspected of providing drugs to an informant, among other allegations.
“His relationship with the police supersedes his relationship to the citizens of Bristol County,” Mack, 41, who lives in Fall River, said in an interview. “He’s willing to cover up for cops.”
Mack said he knew the shooting investigation had the potential to identify wrongdoing by his brother. But he became suspicious when investigators asked him and other relatives where Harden kept knives in his home.
“If he had tried to stab you, why don’t you have the knife?” Mack asked. In February, he filed a public records lawsuit in the case. Harden’s widow has also sued, demanding Quinn’s office return Harden’s cellphone.
In an interview, Quinn dismissed Mack’s court petition as “absurd” and said it represents an “unconstitutional attempt” to malign him as he faces a challenge for re-election for the first time since taking office in 2015. He said the complaint includes fabrications and distortions and wrongfully accuses him of improperly clearing not only the police officer who killed Harden, but a second Fall River officer who shot and killed Larry Ruiz-Barreto, 19, during a confrontation in 2017.
Quinn determined the shooting was justified, concluding that Ruiz-Barreto drove his car into the officer. That finding was supported by the front-seat passenger, who told investigators that Ruiz-Barreto “hit the gas,” according to a report.
But in a wrongful death suit, Ruiz-Barreto’s survivors assert that he didn’t drive into the officer, citing an eyewitness account from his father, who was in the backseat, and other evidence.
Quinn said he stands by the investigations that found officers were justified in using lethal force against Harden and Ruiz-Barreto.
“This is serious when [Mack’s] trying to make these allegations that I’m turning a blind eye to somebody murdering an innocent civilian, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” Quinn said. “Unfortunately [Mack], in his filings and comments, is providing a lot of inaccurate information about these cases to try to undermine me.”
In the drug case that Mack cites in his complaint, a police detective was investigated by the State Police, but their efforts were stymied when an informant refused to cooperate, Quinn said. A separate internal affairs investigation found the officer, Joshua Robillard, had improperly stored undocumented drugs, including 78 bags of heroin, in his desk and three safes he controlled. The department disciplined Robillard but he remains on the police force, Quinn said.
A lawyer for Robillard said the allegations sustained against him were “administrative violations with no nefarious intentions” and that his client was reassigned after serving a suspension.
Mack filed his petition under a state law that empowers a majority of SJC justices to remove an array of public officials from elected and non-elected offices “if in their judgment the public good so requires.” The offices covered by the law includes district attorneys, sheriffs, court clerks, and registers of probate.
In the case of county prosecutors, the SJC hasn’t exercised its authority since 1954 when the justices, acting on a request from the state attorney general’s office, ousted Basil Winslow Flynn from his role as Plymouth district attorney. Flynn was deemed unfit for office, the justices wrote, because he used his role as a trustee for a charitable trust to enrich himself in a scheme using straw buyers. Three decades earlier, the court removed two other district attorneys, again at the request of the attorney general’s office.
Today, Quinn, the president of the Massachusetts District Attorney Association, has the support of fellow elected prosecutors. In a statement, Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, a former president of the state association and National District Attorneys Association, said “there has never been any doubt as to his professionalism and integrity.”
In September, Quinn faces an election challenge for the first time after running unopposed in 2016 and 2018. Shannon McMahon, a lawyer from Swansea who previously worked in the DA’s office under Quinn and his predecessor, is running against him in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican candidate.
McMahon said she supports Mack’s petition and accused Quinn of concealing details about the police shootings of Harden and Ruiz-Barreto. Mack is supporting her because he “believes the DA has acted in a cover-up,” she said.
Campaign finance records show Mack and his wife have each donated $1,000, the maximum allowed, to McMahon’s campaign. Two of Harden’s siblings have contributed a total of $1,250.
As of June 30, Quinn had more than $365,000 in his campaign account, while McMahon had just over $9,400.
As the primary approaches, Mack said he wants the Department of Justice to investigate Harden’s death. He was shot and killed in his bedroom on Nov. 22, 2021 after a girlfriend reported that he had attacked her two days earlier.
Mack’s complaint questions police accounts that Harden was holding a knife, citing statements from two officers and two paramedics who arrived after the shooting and said they didn’t see a knife near Harden. Another officer said he saw a knife on the floor, picked it up, and placed it on a desk, a State Police report said.
Mack accused Quinn, the officer that killed Harden, and her partner of exaggerating the confrontation “with each version becoming progressively more violent — to make [Quinn’s] act of clearing the police officers less controversial.” The officer whom Harden was accused of attacking is friends with Quinn’s son, Mack said.
That officer didn’t fire at Harden, Quinn said.
“He wasn’t the focus of the investigation — despite what Mr. Mack says — no matter who he was,” said Quinn, who acknowledged his son and the officer are friends.
At the time of his death, Harden was wearing a GPS bracelet and confined to his home under a court order while he awaited trial on charges that he attacked and sexually assaulted his wife in 2019, records show. When confronted by officers during the incident, police said there was a 3 1/2-hour standoff during which Harden brandished a small sword and threatened to kill his infant daughter and himself. Harden had pleaded not guilty.