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Joan Stanley, 71; battled debilitating ailment to blaze legal trails

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Ms. Stanley served as a assistant US attorney and a criminal defense lawyer.
Ms. Stanley served as a assistant US attorney and a criminal defense lawyer.

When Joan Stanley was one of the first black female federal prosecutors in the nation in the 1970s, there were days when her hands ached and her joints swelled so badly that she could not brush her hair without her sister's help.

Each of Ms. Stanley's steps toward the courthouse door in Boston came with pain from rheumatoid arthritis, which her family said was diagnosed when she was in her early 20s.

She forged ahead with a long trailblazing career anyway and later opened her own practice as a criminal defense attorney. Representing indigent defendants for many years, she became one of the longest-serving public defenders in the state.

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"I'm a trial lawyer. I have to do this," Ms. Stanley told her friend Jocelyn Moroney years ago, when Moroney wondered if Ms. Stanley might channel her intellect and mentoring skills into teaching instead.

Ms. Stanley, a longtime resident of Roxbury's Fort Hill neighborhood, died Oct. 16 in Brigham and Women's Hospital from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. She was 71.

"She lived for a trial. She really enjoyed it," said Moroney, a former federal postal inspector whose friendship with Ms. Stanley began 30 years ago when they worked together on a case.

After law school, Ms. Stanley began her career as a public defender in Roxbury before becoming a federal prosecutor. Among the crimes she prosecuted was a case against a tuna fishing captain who admitted to charges of harassing and pursuing whales in 1979. Witnesses on a whale watching boat captured the incident in photographs and film.

"It's pretty stupid to break the law in front of more than 200 witnesses," Ms. Stanley, who was then an assistant US attorney, told the Globe at the time.

By the 1990s, she had opened her own practice.

"She smiled all the time, until it was time to advocate for a client. Then the gloves came off," said defense attorney Larry Tipton, a longtime colleague.

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"Joan was one of those few people that when you saw her, you just wanted to go up and say hello and share her smile," he said. "Even as her health deteriorated, Joan's smile was there and her positive attitude came through."

In 1999, Ms. Stanley and Tipton worked together to represent Jeffrey L. Bly, a Boston gangster who was accused of one of the most shocking crimes in the city's history, the execution-style murder of Assistant Attorney General Paul R. McLaughlin.

Bly stalked and killed McLaughlin at a rail station days before McLaughlin was about to prosecute him for a third time, police say. McLaughlin had failed to secure convictions twice previously against Bly for drug crimes.

Ms. Stanley presented a spirited defense against complex DNA evidence linking Bly to McLaughlin's murder and brought forward witnesses who offered a possible alibi. She argued that Bly's former allies falsely testified against him under intense pressure from law enforcement. Ultimately, though, the jury rejected the defense. Bly was convicted and is serving a sentence of life without parole.

Ms. Stanley relished the art of verbal sparring in a courtroom, according to her sister Joyce of Boston. "She loved to argue," Joyce said. "She believed in what she did."

Before advancements in treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, their mother, Lucile, would sometimes spend the nights with Ms. Stanley. She would hold her daughter close so the warmth could provide some pain relief and allow her a few hours of sleep while working on a trial, Joyce said.

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Ms. Stanley's mother, the former Lucile Duncan, was from Alabama, where she was a teacher. During World War II, Lucile moved to Boston and worked as a ship welder in the Navy Yard, where she met John C. Stanley.

According to the Stanley family, Ms. Stanley's father became a Merchant Marine in 1919 to escape lynch mobs in his native Texas who killed scores of African-American men in the decades following the Civil War.

Ms. Stanley's parents prioritized education. Her mother taught in Boston's schools from the 1960s to 1982. Her father often lamented not being able to attend college and required his children to study hard and watch the nightly news.

Ms. Stanley graduated from the Boston Public Schools in the 1960s. Counselors initially persuaded her to set aside dreams of college and enroll in a clerical school instead, according to her sister.

Joyce said that when Ms. Stanley began working as a secretary in a law firm, she realized she was as smart as the male lawyers and set her sights on becoming one. Awarded scholarships, Ms. Stanley graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Howard University in 1969 and a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1972.

In addition to her sister, Ms. Stanley leaves her other sister, Gwen Creary, and her brothers, John and Joseph, all of Boston.

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Services were held in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.

An avid science fiction fan, Ms. Stanley was one of the early members of the Boston Star Trek Association and traveled as far as Australia to attend the World Science Fiction Convention. Friends quipped that she was as logical as a Vulcan in her approach to life.

"She didn't get emotional about anything but her cats," her friend Moroney said. One of her long-lived cats, Miss Kitty, was taken in by her sister following Ms. Stanley's death.

Ms. Stanley loved talking about jazz, movies, and collecting stamps. The many books she shelved in her historic row house threatened the structural integrity of her house, forcing repairs, according to Moroney.

Her annual holiday party drew people from all walks of life who feasted on elaborate banquets of salmon and roast pork. "She made no distinctions in her friends – not by class, race, or social status. Everybody could be there and everybody was there," Moroney said.

In a memo to public defenders, Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said Ms. Stanley in the early 1970s faced "considerable prejudice within the system," he wrote, but persisted with "ardent determination and a noble spirit."

"Joan is an important part of our history and helped pave the way for so many others,'' he said. "She was a force to be reckoned with and she will be greatly missed."


J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.

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