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SJC criticizes Hampden DA over handling of Springfield police misconduct

Justices say local prosecutors must disclose records about misconduct by narcotics officers in Springfield

The Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday established rules for prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence about police misconduct in a decision that rebuked a district attorney and weighed in on the federal investigation into wrongdoing by Springfield Police Department narcotics officers.

“A prosecutor’s obligation to disclose exculpatory material is just that — an obligation, not a decision,” Justice Frank M. Gaziano wrote in the opinion.

The decision outlines rules for prosecutors on two tracks. First it prescribed a plan for getting exculpatory evidence into the hands of criminal defendants who were investigated by Springfield officers who were found to have used excessive force. And second it provided prosecutors with a framework for handling similar scenarios.

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“If a DA has in its possession information that could be exculpatory they can’t turn a blind eye to it and not turn it over,” said Marsha Kazarosian, a lawyer and past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “They have to disclose it.”

The SJC’s ruling was set against a US Department of Justice investigation released in 2020 that found that Springfield police narcotics officers had a pattern of using excessive force and needlessly brutalizing civilians. The investigation in Springfield was the only one initiated against a local police department by the federal government during the Trump administration.

While federal prosecutors and the city of Springfield agreed in 2022 to a court-ordered reform plan overseen by an independent monitor, the investigative report provided only scant details about incidents during which Springfield narcotics officers violated civilians’ constitutional rights.

Because the report didn’t provide names of the officers or civilians involved in those incidents, criminal defense attorneys said they couldn’t determine whether their clients were unfairly prosecuted based on investigations by officers who were found to have engaged in misconduct. The federal report described about 23 incidents of misconduct involving Springfield police, the SJC said.

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Defense lawyers turned to Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni for answers. His office prosecutes crimes in Springfield and nearby communities.

Kazarosian said when it comes to exculpatory evidence, prosecutors have the advantage over defense lawyers and decide what is exculpatory.

“There is no balance in power,” she said.

In 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Committee for Public Counsel Services, and others sued Gulluni’s office and asked the SJC to determine whether he and his prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and investigate misconduct by Springfield police.

The SJC found Gulluni breached his duties on both counts and drew upon case law forged during the state drug lab scandal to instruct prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence about misconduct by officers regardless of whether they agree with the finding of wrongdoing.

“The remedy here is simple: All defendants affected by the [Springfield] department’s misconduct should have access to all materials known to have been reviewed by the DOJ in drafting its report,” Gaziano wrote.

In a statement, Carol Rose, executive director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, praised the SJC ruling.

The SJC, she said, “has sent a clear message to prosecutors and other law enforcement officials that they cannot ignore their fundamental duties to investigate and disclose potentially exculpatory evidence, such as the shocking reports of systemic and widespread police misconduct in Springfield.”

In a statement, Gulluni defended his handling of exculpatory evidence by narcotics officers and his efforts to access Springfield police materials used by federal investigators.

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In its 2020 report, the DOJ said it reviewed more than 114,000 pages, including five years of use-of-force and arrest reports and six years of prisoner injury files.

Gulluni’s office sued the federal government in 2021 to get the materials, but lost in court, the SJC said. He appealed the decision to a federal appeals court, which also ruled against Gulluni, the opinion said.

“In essence, we sought to provide the needle, and the Court now wants us to provide the haystack,” Gulluni said in a statement.

But Gaziano wrote that his office did have a chance to get more materials from the city solicitor of Springfield, but declined to act. Instead, the opinion said Gulluni’s office received about 700 to 800 pages of materials concerning about 16 incidents described in the federal report. The officers involved in those incidents have been linked by Gulluni’s office to about 8,000 past and pending criminal cases, Gaziano wrote.

“The district attorney’s office was obligated to request ‘all discoverable materials’ be made available to the prosecution,” he wrote. “By not following up on the city solicitor’s offer to provide ‘any and all records’ that were reviewed by the DOJ . . . and settling for the 700 to 800 documents provided, the district attorney’s office fell short of meeting its duty of inquiry.”

Ryan Walsh, a spokesperson for Springfield police, said the department is not a part of the lawsuit in which the SJC ruled, but plans to meet with Gulluni’s office to “see what if anything is required of us.” The narcotics unit investigated by federal prosecutors has been disbanded.

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A spokesperson for Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield didn’t respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

In his statement, Gulluni said his office will “work with the court and the petitioners to do this as efficiently as possible.”

“Given the outrageous claims and demands for relief with which the petitioners started, this outcome is one that we understand and from which we quickly will move on,” he said.

Luke Ryan, a criminal defense attorney in Northampton who uncovered key evidence in the drug lab scandal, said the records that will be produced as a result of the SJC decision should provide a better picture of how the police misconduct in Springfield impacted the criminal justice system beyond the 23 incidents described by federal investigators.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said. “Hopefully this will remedy some of what ails Springfield and its community which has had to endure unconstitutional police work from the people that are sworn to protect and serve.”






Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her @lauracrimaldi.