In April 2013, Marian Ryan called all Middlesex prosecutors to a large courtyard in the district attorney’s office in Woburn.
Governor Deval Patrick had just appointed her district attorney and she wanted those gathered to know how much she was looking forward to leading them. She told the dozens of prosecutors she had absolute confidence in them, a sentiment they appreciated.
But 15 months later, as she campaigns to win a full term in the fall elections, Ryan is under fire for what critics say is putting politics ahead of sound prosecutorial policies because of a fear of media scrutiny, and creating a demoralizing workplace where she has been accused of yelling at subordinates.
As many as 66 of about 240 employees in the office have left and been replaced during Ryan’s time at the helm, an issue that her opponent, Michael Sullivan, raised during a recent debate. While turnover in district attorneys’ offices is common, the number of departures in Ryan’s office is fueling criticism that she bears some responsibility for them.
“The employees of the Middlesex DA’s office are deeply committed and extremely hard-working despite the current executive leadership who often treats them in demeaning and disparaging ways,” said former prosecutor Lisa McGovern, who gave notice on June 2, a week after securing the first-degree murder conviction of Jared Remy for the killing of his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel. “It’s mismanagement to treat them in a harsh, demeaning way and mismanagement to base supervisory decisions on the fear of media criticism.”
McGovern, who has prosecuted several high-profile murder and rape cases, and who is backing Sullivan, was one of a dozen people interviewed who have left the office in the last year.
Each described a culture of dysfunction at the office. About half of those interviewed said they left because they were concerned about how the office was being run.
Except for McGovern, they all asked for anonymity, citing fears about future employment, or current employment in state jobs that do not allow them to speak to reporters.
In an interview, Ryan defended her management style, describing herself as detail-driven and passionate about cases. She attributed most of the employee departures to factors such as a desire for better pay or shorter hours.
“I love that office,” Ryan said. “I treat the people in my office like this is a family.”
Ryan acknowledged instituting some unpopular policies, chiefly to tighten up supervision of prosecutors’ bail requests for domestic violence suspects, but she rejected the assertion that the policies were created because of media scrutiny of the Remy case. Her sole interest, she said, was ensuring the safety of victims and the integrity of cases in the wake of Martel’s killing.
Ryan’s office was rocked by criticism over the handling of Remy’s domestic violence arrest on charges he’d assaulted his girlfriend.
Remy was released from jail, with the approval of a Middlesex prosecutor, and two days later he murdered Martel. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on May 27.
“I made a public pledge that I would do things differently,” Ryan said during a recent 90-minute interview. “I do not in any way discount that people felt their autonomy was being curtailed and to some extent, yes it was. . . . It doesn’t in any way mean that I feel you personally are less good at your job. I have an accountability here to know that we have the best system in place.”
An external review ordered by Ryan following the killing recommended prosecutors consult supervisors on when to seek a dangerousness hearing for a defendant.
Dangerousness hearings are held to determine whether a defendant in an assault case is too dangerous to be out on bail and should be held for up to 90 days.
By then Ryan had already adopted such a policy for her office, which prosecutes 35,000 cases a year from 54 cities and towns.
Prosecutors, who were accustomed to relying on their own knowledge of the law to decide when to ask for bail, were told they would now need a supervisor to review their domestic assault cases first. The edict proved chaotic in district courtrooms when prosecutors could not immediately reach supervisors by phone, exasperating judges trying to keep busy court sessions flowing.
In addition, prosecutors said they felt pressure from supervisors to ask for bail revocations, higher bails, and dangerousness hearings for defendants in domestic assault cases who did not deserve to be held. Initially, judges complied and there was a spike in the number of people held, according to the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office.
But soon, many prosecutors began to feel they were losing credibility with judges, several former prosecutors told the Globe.
Last fall, a Lowell Sun reporter posted a video of Lowell District Court Judge Thomas Brennan taking a Middlesex prosecutor to task, stating that just because a prosecutor requests bail “it doesn’t mean that everybody is automatically going to be put into custody with these ridiculous bails that exist because of political considerations, OK?” Brennan said.
The issue boiled over when an assistant district attorney in the Framingham office resigned after Ryan let it be known she felt he had not followed her edict to have “two sets of eyes” reviewing domestic assault cases.
The abrupt departure dismayed many prosecutors.
“When the mindset of the administration becomes one that we need to be asking for bail or dangerousness hearings on every single case because we don’t want to look bad in the newspapers, that makes the district court [prosecutors] afraid of their own shadow, and they’re afraid that they’re going to get fired,” one former prosecutor said. “It also puts them in a bad ethical dilemma.”
Ryan denies she put in place a blanket policy.
“Our position on bail is to be that we are being reasonable,” Ryan said. “It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Remy case had on young prosecutors. People may not have a sense of how devastating that was. . . . Do I think many people became risk-adverse as a result of that and were asking for bail? Yes. Have I ever said there is a policy you must ask for bail? That is absolutely not the case.”
Ryan declined to talk about the departure of the prosecutor who resigned, calling it a personnel matter.
“The policies had to be complied with and it was clear there would be consequences,” Ryan said.
Melissa Hartford, a former Middlesex prosecutor who left the office in 2007 and now works in Framingham representing domestic violence victims, said more consideration of bail matters involving a suspect can only help a victim.
“A lot of victims aren’t necessarily there when a defendant gets arraigned, either because they’re getting medical treatment or they’re afraid,” said Hartford, who described herself as Ryan’s friend and supporter.
“To have a back and forth with other people, people who are more experienced than you, I feel like that ultimately results in better decisions.”
But defense attorney Chris Spring, a former Middlesex prosecutor who works mostly out of the Lowell District Court, said the increase in bail requests has hurt the credibility of the office.
“Once you’re in court you have to make decisions based on the law,” said Spring, who started his career as a prosecutor in Middlesex and left in 2004.
“In looking back, I think the DA’s office took a lot of really unfair criticism with what they did over the Remy case. I think Marian Ryan was raked over the coals and treated very unfairly,” he said. “That being said, the office’s response to what happened in the Remy case was horrific. The response was to ask for cash bail on every single domestic that walked through the door.”
Spring said employees at the office tell him morale remains low.
“Just from what I’m hearing in court, there are a lot of unhappy [prosecutors,]” he said.
Ryan’s office said the pace of the departures has slowed. District attorney’s offices, where the pay is low and the workload heavy, constantly lose and hire new people, especially in election years.
In 2006, as then-Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley was preparing to leave the office to become attorney general and Gerard T. Leone took over, 56 people left. In 2007, 94 people left, dozens to the Attorney General’s office. But the pace slowed considerably in 2009, and only 29 people left in 2012.
Ryan said the general criticism she once heard from defense attorneys and judges has quieted. She has assigned a senior prosecutor to remain at the busier courts so assistant district attorneys can reach them quickly.
“People weren’t as happy as before but we have a new normal now,” Ryan said. “People will say ‘I don’t like that we had to go here. I understand that we had to go there but we’re in a better place now.’ ”
Ryan’s management style was questioned before she began running the office. In 2012, then Middlesex District Attorney Leone decided that Ryan should no longer directly supervise paralegals and assistants following several complaints about her yelling at subordinates and overloading them with work, according to three people with knowledge of the order.
One was so stressed while working for Ryan she no longer felt comfortable coming to the office, according to two of the sources.
Leone declined to comment for this story. Asked about the decision, Ryan said she only recalled a complaint from one employee, an assistant assigned to work on one of Ryan’s tougher cases.
“There were a lot demands on her. There was a lot of work,” Ryan said.
She insisted that she retained supervisory control of her unit and denied mistreating employees.
“Have I ever raised my voice? Yes,” Ryan said. “Frankly, a part of being a good trial lawyer is there is a lot of frenetic activity and drama. . . . I would venture to guess there is a lot of excitement, raised voices anywhere in an office.”
A Patrick spokeswoman said Ryan went through “a thorough vetting process” before the governor appointed her.
“During that process she was portrayed as being liked, respected, and well-suited to the job of district attorney,” said Jesse Mermell, Patrick’s director of communications.
Some employees who left described Ryan as a driven manager known for mentoring promising young prosecutors and working after hours to strategize with prosecutors over cases.
“She was a selfless, dedicated leader as far as I was concerned and I frankly modeled myself after her,” said Sean Casey, a former Middlesex prosecutor who left in April for a job with a better commute at the Department of Public Health.
McGovern, whose last day was June 27, said she struggled with the decision to leave the DA’s office but felt she had no choice.
“I loved my job,” she said. “But it became untenable for me to continue working there.”