The Suffolk County prosecutor who sent James Watson to prison for life knew Boston police had made grievous mistakes in the interview of a key witness — mistakes that made the witness’s account suspect.
But instead of coming clean, prosecutor Timothy P. O’Neill buried a memo that detailed the “error of major proportions” and put the witness on the stand.
Watson served 41 years in prison for murder before that memo and other evidence of O’Neill’s wrongdoing came to light. Now a free man, Watson is fighting back against the prosecutor who put him behind bars.
“He ruined my life,” Watson said of O’Neill. “He knew. He knew I was innocent and he pursued it anyway.
“Now, I’m holding [him] accountable.”
In August, Watson filed a formal complaint against O’Neill with the Massachusetts Office of the Bar Counsel, which investigates lawyers for misconduct. The push for accountability after four decades may be largely symbolic — O’Neill has retired from legal practice — but it matters to Watson and at least three others who served decades in prison because of prosecutors who are now accused of violating their oaths.
The complaints are long shots: Prosecutors rarely, if ever, face repercussions for bad behavior. Unlike rogue police officers, they are almost never charged with crimes. They generally don’t face civil rights lawsuits, even when they knowingly break the law. They have perhaps the broadest immunity from accountability within the criminal justice system.
For the wrongfully convicted, that leaves the state Board of Bar Overseers as the lone avenue to hold prosecutors accountable.
Currently, the disciplinary board has misconduct complaints pending that involve at least six current or former prosecutors accused of wrongdoing in murder convictions that were eventually thrown out, according to legal records and defense attorneys. In each case, judges or defense attorneys documented alleged efforts to hide evidence, knowingly elicit false testimony, or withhold records that pointed at another suspect.
“Our entire legal system is built on the assumption that . . . we can trust prosecutors to do the right thing — to ‘seek justice’ within the confines of the law,” said Lisa M. Kavanaugh, director of the Innocence Program at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
When prosecutors break that trust, she added, “the public has a right to know and to be assured that they will face real consequences.”
Put off in many cases by the long odds against them, those wronged by the system rarely seek action. On average less than 2 percent of all legal misconduct complaints are against prosecutors, according to the state Office of the Bar Counsel. The process is so cloaked in secrecy that the Board of Bar Overseers declined to even say whether it was taking a harder line against prosecutors who abuse their power.
However, that may change as more wrongful convictions come to light in Massachusetts and across the United States. In Boston alone, judges have thrown out murder and rape convictions against more than a dozen men since 2019. Almost all of them are Black and had been sentenced to life in prison.
Often the injustices are blamed on police tactics — evidence planted, falsified, or ignored, flawed interrogations, and the like. But a series of recently overturned cases shows how prosecutorial missteps can put the wrong person behind bars.
Consider allegations pending for more than two years against former Plymouth County prosecutor Karen O’Sullivan.
A judge in September 2020 threw out an arson and double murder conviction citing O’Sullivan and another prosecutor’s “racially and sexually offensive e-mails” to each other. The judge found that the missives demonstrated their “their racial animus” against the defendant, Frances Choy, and her family, who are of Asian descent. The ruling also alleged that O’Sullivan knowingly elicited false testimony from a police detective.
Choy was accused at 17 of setting her Brockton home on fire and killing both her parents. She served 17 years in prison before her release. Choy’s legal team sent the ruling detailing the prosecutors’ misconduct to the disciplinary board on Oct 1, 2020. One of her attorneys, Sharon Beckman of the Boston College Innocence Program, said legal ethics required attorneys to report the behavior.
O’Sullivan and her fellow prosecutor, John E. Bradley Jr., have said that the offensive e-mails were fabricated as political payback by their former boss, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz. Bradley said it was part of a smear campaign because he had sued Cruz and run against the district attorney when he was reelected in 2018. Cruz’s office has said claims that the e-mails were fabricated or tampered with were “ludicrous.”
O’Sullivan, who did not respond for comment, left the Plymouth district attorney’s office in 2012, but remained a prosecutor. She moved to Bristol County, where she now serves on District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III’s leadership team.
Quinn has repeatedly defended O’Sullivan and dismissed the judge’s findings in the Choy case. “If I thought Karen O’Sullivan was biased towards any defendant, she would not be working for me,” Quinn said in a statement.
The legal community is also closely watching the outcome of a 2017 misconduct case against three former state prosecutors tied to the state drug lab scandal. The allegations include concealing documents and making misrepresentations in court. In a rare move, the board that evaluates complaints against lawyers urged that one of the former prosecutors be disbarred, a penalty more severe than had been recommended by a hearing officer.
The ultimate decision will be made by the state’s highest court, which is the final arbiter of attorney discipline. The case, like most legal misconduct investigations, has moved so slowly that legal experts say it discourages others from filing complaints.
“There’s a sense of resignation in the defense bar that prosecutors are often above the law and they won’t be held accountable,” said law professor Daniel S. Medwed of Northeastern University, who filed the drug lab complaint. “It’s not just Massachusetts. It’s really every state.”
In Massachusetts, complaints about attorneys remain confidential unless investigators file public charges, which can take years. If a complaint is investigated but the Office of the Bar Counsel determines no public charges are warranted, it remains secret.
The Office of the Bar Counsel cited its confidential rules and declined to disclose whether any of the prosecutors identified by the Globe had pending complaints. The cases are not public and it appears no charges have been filed.
But nothing prevents people from airing the allegations they report about attorneys.
Robert Foxworth, who served nearly three decades in prison for murder before his conviction was thrown out in 2020 , went public in November with his complaint against high-ranking Suffolk homicide prosecutor Mark Lee. Foxworth and one of his attorneys accused Lee of withholding evidence from a federal informant who said he was innocent. Foxworth then served another dozen years in prison.
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin R. Hayden launched an investigation and suspended Lee with pay in November. Lee has vigorously denied the allegations through his attorneys, who issued a statement describing the complaint as “baseless and malicious.”
Last year another case revealed more allegations of wrongdoing by prosecutors. A Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled in December 2021 that he had an ethical obligation to report the conduct of former Suffolk prosecutors who withheld evidence and lied about it in court. This case involved Shaun Jenkins, who served nearly 20 years in prison for murder until his attorneys made a series of discoveries.
The defense learned that prosecutors had wrongly withheld phone records and other evidence pointing to another possible killer. In court, former Suffolk prosecutor Timothy J. Bradl made legal arguments that contradicted the records and other evidence in the prosecution’s possession. In a statement, an attorney for Bradl said his client had an “an unblemished record” and “made no false statements and hid no evidence” in Jenkins’s case.
The Suffolk district attorney’s office said it was aware of the allegations against Lee and the former prosecutors, but declined to comment while the complaints were pending. In a statement, Hayden encouraged people to report law enforcement misconduct and pledged to be “as vigilant in using facts to address unjust convictions as we will in using facts to secure convictions.”
There was a litany of problems with the case, including Boston detectives who used hypnosis in an improper way on a key witness. After being hypnotized, that witness allegedly identified Watson and Clay as two of the culprits. But new records unearthed by Watson’s legal team showed that O’Neill, the prosecutor on the case, knew back then that detectives had botched the interview.
In a September 1980 letter, O’Neill asked a Harvard psychiatrist to testify as an expert vouching for the hypnosis procedures.
The Harvard psychiatrist wrote back that he would not testify because not only had police done it wrong, but their mistakes were irreversible. Detectives failed to record the witness’s memories before the hypnosis and they used leading questions that can elicit “inaccurate information.”
O’Neill was undeterred, court records show. Instead of disclosing the psychiatrist’s criticism to the defense as required, he withheld the letter, found a different expert, and offered a new description of the detectives’ procedures. The prosecution now claimed that the witness identified Watson before he had been hypnotized — an assertion contradicted by O’Neill’s own letter to the Harvard psychiatrist, according to filings by Watson’s attorney, Barbara A. Munro.
After Watson and Clay went to prison, O’Neill went into private practice, where he boasted on his firm’s website of a 90 percent conviction rate during his years as a prosecutor. As a defense lawyer, he represented priests accused of sexual abuse.
Watson filed a complaint this summer against O’Neill. The former prosecutor, who is retired and living in Colorado, declined to speak to Watson’s investigators and he did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
Any discipline would be symbolic, but Watson believes it could be a small measure of justice.
Watson refused a plea offer that would have freed him after less than two years behind bars if he testified against his codefendant. Watson maintained his innocence, refused to turn on the other man, and spent four decades in prison.
“The man that convicted me knew I didn’t do it and he went through with it,” Watson said. “What does that tell you about the world we live in?”