A week after the men charged with killing her son were acquitted and allowed to go home to their families, Lisa Brown decided it was time to head back to her empty house in Western Massachusetts.
“Part of me doesn’t want to go home,” she said, sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Plymouth that had been home for the last two weeks.
She moved in for the trial of the three former corrections officers who were charged with involuntary manslaughter for killing her son, Joshua Messier, while trying to restrain him at Bridgewater State Hospital in 2009.
Joshua, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was 23 years old when he died, as officers — lacking training and empathy — tried to fold him over and push him down like he was an overstuffed suitcase.
Just hours before Joshua died, his mother visited him at the prison, which is where, at the time, Massachusetts put mentally ill people because it’s easier to treat them as criminals than as sick.
The last words mother and son said to each other were, “I love you,” and while that’s something Lisa Brown will always hold onto, it’s cold comfort.
Lisa Brown never gave up on Joshua, and never stopped fighting for him, even when Plymouth District Attorney Tim Cruz refused to bring charges against the guards. The state settled a civil suit brought by Joshua’s family, but Lisa Brown believed that the men who killed her son should face criminal charges.
In that cause she found an ally in Mike Rezendes, a terrific Globe reporter who carries empathy and compassion along with his notebooks. Rezendes built a compelling argument that this case needed to be hashed out in a criminal courtroom.
The guards’ lawyers were savvy enough to skip a jury of lay people and took their case directly to a judge. That judge, Jeffrey Locke, while acknowledging that the guards did a lot of things wrong, decided that the way they violently restrained Joshua was neither reckless nor wanton — the standard required for a conviction for involuntary manslaughter.
Upon hearing the verdict, Lisa Brown cried, as she has cried for eight years now. But she also displayed a remarkable sense of grace.
She didn’t lash out at the judge.
“He did what he thought was right,” she said. “I just don’t agree with it.”
She didn’t lash out at the defendants.
“I don’t hate them,” she said, “but I did want them to be found guilty, because it would set a precedent, so that people would think twice before abusing disabled people, vulnerable people.”
The only solace Lisa Brown took from that courtroom was the knowledge that Massachusetts has changed the way it holds and treats people like her son, and that, however painfully slow, the wider culture is recognizing the mentally ill need to be treated, not warehoused and brutalized.
Christmas is hard. She hasn’t celebrated it since Joshua died. She hasn’t celebrated anything since Joshua died.
With the criminal case over, she knows she has to move on, but to something that honors Joshua’s memory. She wants to advocate for the mentally ill in other places. She’s trying to help a mother whose daughter is in the women’s prison in Framingham. There are still so many people in prison who belong in hospitals.
“I can’t stop,” she said. “I’d let Josh down. I’d lose Josh. His death would be in vain if I stop.”
So she won’t stop.
It was getting dark. It was time to load Aneila and Oopsie into the car. Aneila and Oopsie are chihuahuas, both disabled. Lisa Brown had them stay with a nearby family while the trial was on.
Aneila gets around in a dog wheelchair. Oopsie has to wear a collar that keeps her neck in a certain position or else she’ll die.
With the dogs safely secured, Lisa Brown steered her car onto Route 3, headed north, bound for the Massachusetts Turnpike, which would take her to a house that hasn’t been a home since Joshua died.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.