Metro

In slim-chance cases, Rosemary Scapicchio beats the odds

Rosemary Scapicchio led her client, Sean Ellis (center), from court last week after his release.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Rosemary Scapicchio led her client, Sean Ellis (center), from court last week after his release.

Her life story reads like a TV mystery pilot: Hotshot lawyer who grew up in Brighton projects represents some of Boston’s most notorious defendants, raising hell in the courtroom while raising three kids at home.

Rosemary Scapicchio does some of her own detective work and specializes in all-but-lost causes, freeing Shawn Drumgold a dozen years ago after he spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and winning the release last week of Sean Ellis after he spent more than 21 years behind bars.

“Growing up in the projects, you saw a lot of injustice,” Scapicchio, 50, says of her kinship with underdogs. “We had a couple of cops who wouldn’t think twice about putting their hands on kids. I think they thought we were all throwaway kids.”

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For the past 25 years, Scapicchio has called out bad cops on behalf of throwaway defendants, most recently in the case of Ellis, who was granted a new trial when Judge Carol Ball concluded that the probe into the 1993 murder of Boston detective John Mulligan was marred by police and prosecutorial failures.

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In her decision, Ball said Scapicchio had unearthed evidence that “suggests there was corruption within the investigation of Mulligan’s homicide itself.”

That investigative bent goes back to Scapicchio’s childhood. She devoured every single Nancy Drew mystery again and again. Like the “girl sleuth,” Scapicchio and her team find clues the police may have overlooked — or hidden from the defense.

Mulligan was shot in the face as he slept in a car outside a Roslindale Walgreens while on a paid detail. When Scapicchio looked at the crime-scene photos, something seemed off.

“Mulligan was shot five times in the head,” she says, pointing at five places on her own forehead, which is partially obscured by spiky platinum bangs. “It looked like a pattern, not a kid who panicked and fired. This was a distinct message [to the police].”

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Ellis, she says, “was a 19-year-old kid who stuttered and was going in [to the Walgreens] to buy diapers for his cousin’s baby. He didn’t have a police record.” But he was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995, following two mistrials because of hung juries.

Scapicchio relishes her reputation as an advocate for some of the area’s most infamous defendants. Under the phrase “Boston Murder Attorney,” her website lists her specialties: first-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, vehicular homicide, armed robbery, and carjacking.

Drumgold put her on the map. He spent nearly 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, that of Darlene Tiffany Moore, a 12-year-old girl killed by bullets in 1988 as she sat atop a Roxbury mailbox. Drumgold, who was 24 then, was sentenced to life without parole but was released in 2003 after The Boston Globe and Scapicchio raised questions about the investigation.

Scapicchio sued the Boston Police Department on Drumgold’s behalf, and last year the City of Boston paid him $5 million, its largest payout ever for a wrongful conviction. Scapicchio and her cocounsel, who worked for years on the case, were awarded $1.6 million in fees.

That case remains a favorite for Scapicchio: “Certainly the idea that you’re able to free someone who’s actually innocent — it doesn’t get better than that.”

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How did Drumgold find her? The way other accused killers have: in prison. “He came up to me at Walpole and asked me to look at his case,” Scapicchio says. “He knew me because I was out there a lot, visiting clients.”

Scapicchio (left) embraced Shawn Drumgold after he was acquitted of drug charges in 2012.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Scapicchio (left) embraced Shawn Drumgold after he was acquitted of drug charges in 2012.

‘Our clients are usually charged with horrific crimes, and we’re up against the entire police department, the entire D.A.’s office . . . the FBI, the DEA, the ATF. It’s really a David-Goliath situation.’

Rosemary Scapicchio, Boston defense attorney 

It was 1991, and she was a newly minted lawyer. She turned Drumgold down, telling him he needed someone more experienced. But after his mother twice showed up at her office, she relented. “When I read the trial transcripts, I realized there was no way he could have done this,” Scapicchio says of the gang-related shooting.

“It didn’t make sense. Police said he was a Castlegate Street gang member. But he lived on Humboldt Avenue. You can’t live on Humboldt and be a member of Castlegate. Somebody would shoot you.”

Born Rosemary Curran, Scapicchio grew up largely without her father, an alcoholic “who drove a beer truck for a living,” she says with a laugh. Her mother, Betty, raised six girls alone with a series of blue-collar jobs. Her mother now lives in Middleborough, and she is the second person Scapicchio calls when she gets a not-guilty verdict.

“After I call my husband,” she says. “My mom is very proud of my career.”

The sisters remain in near-daily e-mail or telephone touch. The oldest, Kathy Doyle, runs her alternative-energy development company downstairs from Scapicchio’s office.

“Rosie is one of the most tenacious people I know,” says Doyle, 55. “When we had softball games in the projects, and she was the umpire, if she said someone was out, they were out, and that was it.”

Everyone knew the Curran girls. “We walked from the projects to St. Columbkille’s school each day,” Scapicchio says. “Faneuil [Housing Project] had its problems, but I was street-smart enough to keep my distance.”

For high school, they attended Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Brighton, and Rosemary went on to Suffolk University, where she graduated with a marketing degree. Her senior year, she started dating Ralph Scapicchio. They married in 1988 while she was at Suffolk University Law School.

The Scapicchios, who live in Weymouth, have three children.

Ten years ago, Ralph did a 14-month deployment in Iraq with his Army National Guard unit. “I became a single mom, and it’s the hardest job in the world,” Scapicchio says.

She was also preparing for the retrial of another high-profile defendant, John F. Monteiro, on murder-robbery charges in a 2001 shooting at an MBTA platform at Fields Corner. At home, she was nursing a sick child while working on her opening statement. “I was up all night, cleaning up puke,” she told a Globe reporter.

Still, her street smarts were on full display. One witness said the suspect had crooked teeth. To rebut, Scapicchio had Monteiro parade before the jury, baring a normal-looking set of teeth. She then rested her case. Monteiro was acquitted of murder but convicted of assault with intent to rob Geoffrey Douglas, 16, of a gold chain.

Scapicchio hastens to add that she has been luckier than many working moms: “I was very fortunate to be able to hire a nanny, and I’m in solo practice, so I can go to their games.” She has rarely missed a school meeting or drama production, either.

Scapicchio on the scenarios her defendants often face: “It’s really a David-Goliath situation.”
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2014
Scapicchio on the scenarios her defendants often face: “It’s really a David-Goliath situation.”

Not long after he returned from Iraq, Ralph was diagnosed with carotid artery cancer. His wife is convinced it was war-related. “He was healthy as a horse when he left to go over there,” she says. “And he was in Tikrit when the oil fields were burning.”

He underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and has been cancer-free for nearly four years. A retired National Guard major, he manages the Union Wharf condo they own, where Rosemary and her sister work.

Like many working moms, Scapicchio is protective of family time. When she’s not in trial, they all eat breakfast together, then she drops her sons at school and heads to work, making client calls during her hour-long commute each way.

Scapicchio will not say what her fees are, just that they are nonnegotiable. “They are what they are. People are willing to take out second mortgages.” But she also represents indigent people through the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“Our clients are usually charged with horrific crimes, and we’re up against the entire police department, the entire D.A.’s office, and if needed, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF. It’s really a David-Goliath situation,” she says.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley declined to comment on Scapicchio, but in one 2012 case called her accusations that a police officer lied “offensive and insulting.”

However, Gerry Leone, the former Middlesex district attorney, calls her “a tireless and passionate advocate, devoted to her clients and their causes.” He notes that it’s her job to question the government’s case.

Does she represent guilty people? “That’s not for me to say,” Scapicchio says. “That’s for a jury to decide.”

It’s not all murder and mayhem. In 2005, Scapicchio appeared before the US Supreme Court to successfully challenge the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines in United States v. Duncan Fanfan, a convicted drug dealer.

Her best friend, Laura Panos, was there to hear her argue the case. The two met in law school. “The two words I would use to describe her are brilliant and fearless,” says Panos, an employment lawyer who lives in Belmont and is godmother to Scapicchio’s middle child. “She’s a tremendous friend. She’s a fantastic mother. And she was always the smartest person in the room.”

But Scapicchio says there are “lawyers way smarter than me” and attributes her success to obsessive trial preparation.

She’s also obsessive about family vacation. Every summer, the family rents a house on the Cape for two weeks. “It’s time with my kids, the beach, the drive-in,” she says.

If there’s time, she’ll read crime novels, but not that often: “I find I can figure them out way before the end.”

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.