A man accused of intimidation for heckling then-Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins during a news conference in Boston last year has filed a lawsuit claiming his prosecution was malicious after a judge ruled in May that the man’s criticisms were protected by the First Amendment.
Rollins, Boston Police Detective Dante Williams, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., and Assistant District Attorney Anthony Melia are named as defendants in the complaint, filed Wednesday in Worcester Superior Court by lawyers for Joao DePina, a community activist from Dorchester.
The case stems from a verbal confrontation between DePina and Rollins on Nov. 9 as Rollins, now the US Attorney for Massachusetts, was speaking at a press conference outside a crime scene in Dorchester where three police officers had been injured in a standoff with an armed suspect.
DePina loudly interrupted Rollins as she spoke with reporters during the briefing, which was broadcast live on television. DePina, whose younger brother, Michael, was killed in a shooting in Dorchester in 2014, criticized Rollins for her office’s response to gun violence in the city and its “incompetency .... to respond to his brother’s murder,” the complaint said.
At the time of the verbal confrontation, Suffolk prosecutors had three criminal cases pending against DePina, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Rollins “conspired” with Williams, the Boston Police detective, to draft a police report on the confrontation that could lead to charges against DePina for attorney intimidation.
A spokesperson for Rollins said she had no comment. Williams, through a Boston Police spokesperson, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The Suffolk district attorney’s office recused itself from prosecuting DePina on the intimidation charge, according to the lawsuit. The case eventually landed with the Worcester district attorney’s office, which declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In May, DePina appeared in a Dorchester courtroom, where his motion for dismissal on First Amendment grounds was accepted by Judge Carol-Ann Fraser, according to the lawsuit.
Prosecutors, citing the police report by Williams, had claimed DePina made comments during the confrontation that “indirectly” referenced the pending cases against him. But after reviewing video of the press conference, where DePina can be heard off-camera, Fraser said no such comments were made.
“There exists no probable cause or references, direct or indirect, to the defendant’s pending criminal cases,” Fraser said in her ruling, according to the lawsuit. “The defendant’s speech is within the First Amendment’s protective reach.”
DePina’s lawsuit claims malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, retaliation, intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
“That a prosecutor would even try to send a citizen to prison for heckling a public official is utterly repugnant to the Constitution,” Marc J. Randazza, DePina’s lead counsel, said in a statement. “We had a principled and wise judge who dismissed the charges, but this abuse of power can not stand without being challenged.”