BROCKTON — A trove of off-color and racially charged e-mails sent and received by a Plymouth County prosecutor has exposed a bitter feud within the agency while raising questions about its ability to fairly enforce the law.
The office of Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz presented the e-mails, written on a government e-mail account, to the judge during a January murder trial just before the author, a former assistant of Cruz’s, was scheduled to provide testimony damaging to the prosecution.
Karen H. O’Sullivan, the former Plymouth assistant district attorney, was expected to testify that a key prosecution witness was unreliable. But Cruz said that O’Sullivan’s e-mails, including jokes involving Asian stereotypes, a seemingly mocking attitude toward a crime victim, and a photo of a child in a Ku Klux Klan costume, raised doubts about her integrity.
“I find these e-mails to be disturbing and disgusting and have no place being written on state time on state computers,” Cruz said in a Globe interview.
The defense attorney in the case accused Cruz of introducing the e-mails — which O’Sullivan says were meant only as humor — to intimidate O’Sullivan and discourage her from testifying about the reliability of a key prosecution witness.
“The only reason for turning over the e-mails was to intimidate Karen into not testifying on behalf of the defense and that is just wrong,” said Rosemary C. Scapicchio, attorney for Michael Goncalves, who is accused of murder.
But Plymouth Superior Court judge Richard J. Chin said the e-mails, shared among numerous Plymouth County prosecutors over a period of years, send an alarming message.
They “reflect directly on the employees of the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office to perform their duties,” Chin said in his decision to make the e-mails public, “and the ability of the office’s leadership to effectively supervise those employees.”
Chin said the public has a compelling interest in the activities of prosecutors “sending and receiving e-mails from state issued e-mail addresses, on computers financed by taxpayer dollars.”
The dispute between Cruz and O’Sullivan is part of a larger battle between Cruz and a number of prosecutors who have resigned from the office in recent years. The dispute erupted into public view two years ago when another former Plymouth prosecutor filed a federal lawsuit charging that Cruz fired him because he objected to a number of practices in the office.
The former prosecutor, John E. Bradley Jr., now a high-profile prosecutor in Worcester County, said he was fired in part because he resisted pressure to contribute to Cruz’s reelection campaign and also because he assisted The Boston Globe in preparing a story about motorists in drunken driving cases who received lenient treatment from judges.
Cruz and two top assistants responded to Bradley’s lawsuit by saying that Bradley was fired for “insubordination,” including “being untruthful to Mr. Cruz about cases, referring to Mr. Cruz in disparaging terms to other staff members, and refusing to carry out his required duties.”
As part of the lawsuit, O’Sullivan filed a sworn statement saying that she, too, felt she had been pressured into contributing to Cruz’s reelection campaigns and that she was subjected to pay inequality due to gender discrimination.
O’Sullivan said she left the office in October 2012 after 17 years due to “the increasingly negative treatment and hostile environment that I experienced during my last few years.”
Cruz’s first assistant, Frank J. Middleton Jr., has spoken in disparaging terms about O’Sullivan too, telling Chin that “she has a demonstrable bias against Plymouth County, the DA’s office. She has a history of poor work ethic. . . . She has a reputation for being a liar.”
Bradley’s lawsuit is currently at a critical stage, during which plaintiffs and defendants are sharing evidence and giving pretrial testimony.
Michael E. Mone, a private attorney representing O’Sullivan, said he believes Cruz’s office introduced the e-mails into the Goncalves case to punish O’Sullivan for participating in Bradley’s lawsuit.
“It’s no coincidence that all this happened at about the same time she was subpoenaed to be deposed in the federal civil rights case filed against the district attorney,” Mone said. “This is simply a dysfunctional office and they’re lashing out at everyone,” referring to a number of recent resignations from Cruz’s office.
But Cruz said the resignations have not affected the management of his office.
“People come and go for a variety of reasons,” he said. “It happens in every DA’s office.”
He also said he knew nothing about the racially charged e-mails circulated by assistant district attorneys in his office until he was asked to produce e-mail correspondence in the federal lawsuit.
“But for the federal lawsuit we never would have discovered the e-mails because we don’t monitor the daily e-mail in the office,” he said.
The e-mails, sent and received on O’Sullivan’s official e-mail account, included forwards of off-color jokes about President Obama, Asian men, and other subjects.
In one e-mail to a fellow prosecutor, a white girl is depicted wearing a hat recognizable as standard clothing for Ku Klux Klan members. There do not appear to be words with the image.
In another, O’Sullivan seems to disparage the victim of a reported rape, putting the word victim in quotation marks as though she did not believe her. In yet another, she wrote sarcastically that the story of a forcible rape victim “sounds like she wanted it.”
O’Sullivan’s current boss, Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, filed a motion with Judge Chin to keep the e-mails confidential, arguing that Cruz’s first assistant, Middleton, was being “vindictive” when he provided the e-mails to the judge.
“I find the behavior of Mr. Middleton very unprofessional and very disturbing,” Quinn said. “If he felt so strongly about her, why didn’t he do something about her while she was there?”
“I have gotten to know her and have found her to be a person of high character and an appropriate representative of the district attorney’s office to people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds,” Quinn added.
Middleton told Chin he introduced the e-mails into the case in part because the defendant, Goncalves, is Cape Verdean and O’Sullivan had sent and received “racist e-mails against African-Americans and others,” suggesting she might be biased against Cape Verdean or African-American defendants.
Chin signaled in open court that he would allow the public to see the e-mails, citing the national debate over “how African-American males are being treated by law enforcement.”
Now Scapicchio is demanding the release of all e-mails generated within Cruz’s office, raising questions about Middleton’s management and whether the office has engaged in racially motivated selective prosecutions.
“It’s not a matter of who wrote what to whom,” Scapicchio said. “The issue is: Is there a problem in the Plymouth County DA’s office that needs to be investigated?”
Cruz’s office has opposed the motion, saying that Scapicchio has produced no evidence of selective prosecutions. The matter is scheduled to be heard in Superior Court in Brockton, on Monday.
Scapicchio’s client Goncalves could also get a new date for his murder trial on Monday.
Chin declared a mistrial in the Goncalves case last month, after the jury was unable to reach a verdict.Michael Rezendes can be reached at michael.rezendes @globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@ globe.com.