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In Middlesex DA Marian Ryan’s shoes

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan.
Middlesex DA Marian Ryan.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

BELMONT — Marian Ryan will have to answer her share of criticism in her quest to remain Middlesex DA, especially as scrutiny remains focused on her office’s handling of the case against Jared Remy, released the day before he allegedly murdered Jennifer Martel last summer.

But one knock on the 59-year-old prosecutor won’t stick, no matter how hard her opponent tries: that she lacked empathy for the victim.

Ryan doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to be in a victim’s shoes. She has been wearing them for 33 years now.

Late one rainy October night in 1980, she was with her boyfriend Eddie Bigham on Memorial Drive. The two had been to law school together, and were working as assistant district attorneys in the office Ryan now leads. They were sitting in Bigham’s blue Volkswagen, after yet another of its breakdowns, when a man came up on the driver’s side and pointed a gun at Bigham.

Bigham pushed Ryan to the floor to get her out of danger, and opened his door to move the gunman away from the car. Another man opened Ryan’s door and tried to pull her onto the pavement. She kicked out her purse, hoping he would grab it and run. She held on to her seat so tightly that her nails came loose.


When she heard the shot, she had no idea what it was. Maybe someone had banged on the roof? The men ran, leaving Bigham in the road, shot in the chest. There were no passersby and no cellphones. Ryan ran to an MIT dorm to get help. She tried to stanch the bleeding, but could see how bad it was.

Bigham, 28, was pronounced dead on arrival at Cambridge Hospital. Ryan had come so close to that gunshot that she had powder burns on her face.


“Eddie saved my life,” she said, sitting in her kitchen this week. “I very much knew what they had taken away from me.”

Right after the murder, Ryan was conscious of wanting to limit her losses. She insisted police drive her back down Memorial Drive that morning: It was her route to work, and her favorite view of the city, and she figured, “If I don’t go down there tonight, I will never go there again.”

She also returned to work quickly. “When you know that you’ve gotten a second chance — a bullet track down the side of my head, that is pretty close — you always hope that you are living in a way that honors that,” she said, her eyes misting.

She has a more nuanced view of the system than she might have had otherwise. Of how unreliable memory can be (she failed to pick one of her attackers out of a lineup); and of how inadequate that system is when it comes to filling the canyon of loss murder leaves behind.

“When a family [member] says, ‘When the verdict comes back I will be satisfied,’ I say that is probably not going to be the case,” she said. “These things take a piece away from you that the best prosecution in the world can’t fix.”

Ryan says she never tells victims’ families she is a survivor of a violent, high-profile crime.

“It’s my hope every day that one of the goods that has come of this is that I am better and more empathetic at what I do,” she said. But “what happened to me is not something to be traded or shared or burdened on somebody. It is not about me.”


Still, it stung when she was accused of lacking empathy for Martel.

In the days after the murder, Ryan was criticized by some, including me, for focusing too much on Martel’s failure to come back to court to extend a restraining order against Remy. Martel’s absence figured prominently in prosecutors’ decision not to try to hold her alleged abuser.

Not until a week after the murder did Ryan — clearly not a practiced politician, supremely uncomfortable before a microphone — communicate a more nuanced response than that.

“In no way was that a criticism or blame,” she said this week, “It was just a factor, and it happens often.”

Keeping her job will mean going back over the Martel murder many times in coming months. Such questions are fair, indeed, vital.

But Marian Ryan’s compassion should be off the table.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com