Civil rights attorneys and defense lawyers asked the Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday for a full investigation into police misconduct within the Springfield Police Department, saying it could help determine the integrity of criminal cases filed by that department.
Lawyers for the Hampden County district attorney’s office, which would have to carry out the investigation, argued that it would be unwieldy and unnecessary. But lawyers for the ACLU Massachusetts and the state’s public defender agency said it would be critical to the justice system to determine whether any wrongdoing by a Springfield police officer would taint Hampden County criminal prosecutions.
“The people of Hampden County are being prosecuted without receiving all the evidence to which they are entitled,” Matthew Segal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s State Supreme Court Initiative, argued before the state’s highest court Wednesday morning.
Segal and attorneys with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, filed a lawsuit against the district attorney’s office in 2021 demanding the full probe, a year after federal investigators released a report concluding the Springfield Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Although the report did not name specific officers, it offered numerous examples of excessive force, and also found that existing accountability measures failed to “provide meaningful reviews of uses of force.”
The lack of accountability in Springfield’s justice system was once again thrust into the spotlight last week, after a Globe investigation highlighted the city’s struggle to fire Springfield Detective Gregg Bigda, who was found to have lied on the stand on multiple occasions and was acquitted of brutality charges in 2021, even though jurors watched footage of him telling a teenager he would crush his skull and “[expletive] get away with it.”
In their lawsuit, the ACLU and CPCS argued that District Attorney Anthony Gulluni had an obligation to investigate the full extent of police misconduct, and review any cases that could have been impacted by Springfield officers lying in their police reports or on the witness stand. Instead, Segal argued, Gulluni’s office reviewed “less than 1 percent of the documents the DOJ reviewed” and concluded that no further misconduct had occurred.
“It’s like looking at ice floating on the water and saying that it’s not the tip of the iceberg, while refusing to look under the water,” Segal argued Wednesday. “We want them to examine the whole pattern and practice, not just a few examples of that misconduct.”
Attorneys for Gulluni’s office, meanwhile, argued that ordering individual prosecutors to dig for evidence that a certain police officer may or may not be a liar was too much to ask, and should instead be the defense attorney’s job, particularly since much of that credibility evidence may not be admissible in court.
“These poor little [assistant district attorneys] ... honestly, they’re terrified,” said Elizabeth Mulvey, Gulluni’s attorney.
“Should we [ask them to] go looking for all that evidence when there’s only this much chance,” she said, pausing to pinch her fingers, “that it’ll be admissible?”
However, Justice Frank M. Gaziano pushed back, asking Mulvey to reconsider her position given that “somebody could be going to jail [undeservedly] if that inquiry isn’t made.”
“Well, yes, somebody could be,” she replied, “but there’s no evidence that somebody will.”
Mulvey also pointed to a preliminary Supreme Judicial Court report completed by a special investigator last year, which stated that while “the parties, and indeed the judiciary, the entire criminal bar, and all law enforcement agencies would benefit from this court’s guidance as to” who is responsible for investigating allegations of widespread police misconduct, there is “considerable doubt” that the facts in this case present the best opportunity for justices to offer that guidance.
While justices challenged the argument that there is no need for further investigation, they also questioned whether a sweeping review of the entire Police Department would be the most effective solution.
“Isn’t it better to proceed case by case where individual officers are subject to questioning ... in a more particular and focused way?” asked Justice Scott L. Kafker.
However, Segal argued that the question of whether existing cases have been impacted by Springfield police misconduct “will not get resolved on a case-by-case basis... without clear instructions to review the documents and look into things [even when] police don’t want to turn them over.”
Segal pointed specifically to cases involving “the big three” offenses he said officers often use to wrongly convict people: disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on a police officer.
In an interview outside the courtroom, he explained: “When a police officer beats somebody up and then lies about it, they don’t always write in their police report that they beat somebody up and then lied about it.”
If prosecutors have access to evidence of prior misconduct, they have a legal obligation to share that evidence with the defense, and so far have failed to meet that obligation, Segal said.
Mulvey, however, told the justices that the responsibility falls on defense attorneys to ask prosecutors for that information if they believe that a testifying officer engaged in police violence or misconduct.
“If they feel like they’re being deprived of something, they can go ask for it,” she said. “There are no secrets in Springfield.”
Justices generally publish written opinions within 130 days after oral arguments, but can waive the guideline if they decide more time is needed to issue a ruling.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of days it takes Supreme Judicial Court justices to publish written opinions.