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Ex-AG working on lawsuit for Cambridge family in baby’s death

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Steven Senne/Associated Press/Associated Press

Former Attorney General Martha Coakley made her name as a prosecutor in the child abuse case against British nanny Louise Woodward. Now, nearly 20 years later and in private practice, she is working on another high-profile case involving a nanny.

Coakley has joined another lawyer pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of 1-year-old Rehma Sabir, who say their child’s nanny, Aisling Brady McCarthy, killed their daughter in the family’s Harvard Square apartment in 2013.

This civil lawsuit was filed in Middlesex Superior Court in February, five months after murder charges against the nanny from Ireland were dropped following an unusual change of mind by the medical examiner. Having initially ruled that the girl’s brain swelling, head bruises, and broken bones were suffered due to violent shaking and head trauma, the medical examiner later revised her thinking and said the baby died of “undetermined” causes, such as a possible bleeding disorder, after reviewing medical reports filed by the defense.

Coakley said she took the case because she understood the motivations of the baby’s parents, Sameer Sabir and Nada Siddiqui, who insist the criminal justice system failed them and want a legal way to stop the nanny from profiting from the case that, like the Woodward case, drew international attention.

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“I feel the evidence in court would have shown Rehma was killed as a result of abusive head trauma,” said Coakley, who is with the law firm Foley Hoag and is working with Boston attorney Jonathon Friedmann, who originally filed the case.

Coakley said this is the first time she has agreed to handle a child abuse case since she went into private practice. Coakley said she maintains a passion for child protection and believes some defense medical experts are getting outsized public attention and undermining valid infant homicide prosecutions.

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“I have seen the pendulum swing around this issue,” she said.

Coakley did not say whether McCarthy has been served with the lawsuit, other than to say “we have made efforts to ensure service.” McCarthy, who had been living in Boston illegally, was immediately deported to her native country after charges against her were dropped. A judge gave the parents until late next week to serve her.

Coakley said that if a defendant has been served and does not respond, the plaintiff can ask a judge to issue a default judgment. If that happens in this case, Rehma’s parents have said, minimally, that they will request a way to ensure McCarthy does not profit from their first-born child’s death, such as through book or movie deals.

The mother, Siddiqui, said last winter when the lawsuit was filed, “We lost our beautiful little girl in very difficult circumstances, and feel compelled to bring this suit to protect her memory.”

The Globe could not reach McCarthy for comment. One of her lawyers in her criminal case, Melinda Thompson, said in February that Rehma’s parents were “compounding the tragedy” of the girl’s death by filing this lawsuit just as McCarthy is trying to rebuild her life. McCarthy has consistently maintained she was innocent.

Rehma’s father, Sabir, declined to comment.

A veteran prosecutor who made unsuccessful bids for the governor’s office and US Senate, Coakley is returning to a familiar issue — and venue. She is a former Middlesex district attorney and was head of its child abuse unit, which brought the murder case against McCarthy — and 19 years earlier, against Woodward.

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In the Woodward case, a jury found the 19-year-old nanny guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, but a judge reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter and freed her for time served, which was 279 days. The result angered the boy’s parents, who later filed a wrongful death suit. Woodward ultimately settled out of court, with an agreement not to profit from the case.

Unlike Woodward, McCarthy would be entering the wrongful death case unburdened by a criminal conviction that could be revealed to a jury. Still, she faces a different type of trial. In civil court, plaintiffs must prove only that a preponderance of the evidence points to guilt, not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.


Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com.