Prosecutors in Plymouth County have withdrawn first-degree murder charges in seven cases since 2015, a high number that has renewed questions about their reliance on cooperating witnesses.
The cases involved five homicide victims and six defendants, many of whom languished for several years in jail, awaiting trial. In each case, the charges were dropped when key witnesses, most of whom had made deals with prosecutors in exchange for leniency or immunity, refused to testify, according to a Globe review of court records.
The issue has become a flash point in a hard-fought campaign between incumbent Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruzm, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, John E. Bradley Jr., a former Plymouth County prosecutor whom Cruz fired in 2012.
During a radio debate Monday, Bradley called the number of dismissals “a staggering statistic.”
“We have all these murder cases being dismissed because the cooperators didn’t come through on their end, and that’s just a terrible, terrible failure on the district attorney’s part to keep the community safe,” Bradley said during the 40-minute debate on WATD radio.
Cruz defended his office’s record, saying the deals were necessary to take “dangerous people” off the streets of Brockton, which has been plagued by gang and gun violence.
“You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” Cruz said to Bradley. “Every prosecutor’s office deals with cooperating witnesses. Mr. Bradley has dealt with cooperating witnesses. To say that he doesn’t is incredibly disingenuous.”
Bradley has been a strong critic of Cruz’s reliance on confidential informants with serious criminal backgrounds, noting that some witnesses went on to commit other crimes after they had struck deals with prosecutors.
For instance, Olivio Leverone, a 31-year-old former cooperating witness whom prosecutors had planned to call in two of the dropped murder cases, was arrested Oct. 23 for his alleged role in an armed home invasion.
Murder charges against the six defendants were dropped when prosecutors filed what is known as a nolle prosequi, a declaration that they will no longer pursue the case. It typically indicates the prosecution no longer believes its case is strong enough to win a conviction.
They are unusual in first-degree murder cases, according to a survey of other district attorney offices in Massachusetts. Only Suffolk County, which typically tries about 30 homicide cases a year, far more than any other county in the state, had more dismissals: seven since 2015. One dismissal occurred because the defendant died.
In Middlesex County, which tries an average of 10 homicides a year, prosecutors withdrew murder charges in two cases over the same period of time.
One was the high-profile case of Aisling Brady McCarthy, an Irish nanny accused of fatally assaulting a Cambridge infant in her care. Prosecutors dropped the charges after the state medical examiner’s office revised its original ruling that the infant’s death was a homicide.
The other case was a retrial of a 1982 murder conviction that was vacated by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Retrying the case became impossible because the original witnesses had died or were in declining health, said a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.
In Plymouth County, five of the six defendants were identified as the killers by confidential informants who had entered into agreements with prosecutors or believed their testimony would help them in other criminal matters, according to court documents.
That made their information inherently unreliable, defense lawyers said.
“They decided to put all their eggs in baskets of informants without doing any investigation,” said Rosemary Scapicchio, a criminal defense attorney who represented Michael Goncalves, a defendant in two separate murder cases that were dropped in 2015.
“They held these kids for long periods of time, in some cases three or four years, based on the word of an informant. That was enough for them.”
In one of Goncalves’s cases, a confidential informant later accused prosecutors of telling him to lie on the stand, according to court documents.
Scapicchio said prosecutors withdrew the charges the same day she planned to question prosecutors about the informant’s allegations in court. Prosecutors denied the informant’s allegations at a May 2015 court hearing.
“It’s not true,” said Assistant District Attorney Thomas J. Flanagan. “It’s absolutely not true.”
In a statement, the district attorney’s office defended its record in investigating and prosecuting a spate of murders in Brockton in 2010.
“Every lead was run down, every potential witness was questioned,” the statement read.
“In some instances the best information about these murders came from friends and associates of the suspected murderers themselves. Those witnesses were in a position to see, know and hear critical evidence through these relationships,”
“We would be derelict in our responsibility to the community if we turned away from those witnesses, with their own criminal backgrounds, who come forward with credible evidence,” the statement added.
Joseph F. Krowski Jr., whose client Emanuel Monteiro was charged with killing Ralph Hyppolite during a drug robbery in December 2009, said it was obvious the main witness against his client was problematic.
“He wasn’t credible from the beginning and wasn’t ever going to be credible,” Krowski said.
Prosecutors dropped the charges after the witness, who had been given immunity to testify against Monteiro’s codefendant, said he would refuse to answer questions on the stand.
“They made the right decision not to pursue it,” Krowski said. “I believed from the start there was a lack of credible evidence pointing to Mr. Monteiro.”
Bradley had been a prosecutor for more than two decades when Cruz abruptly fired him, citing poor job performance and insubordination. Bradley sued for wrongful termination and eventually received a $248,000 settlement.
During the debate, Cruz said that in his 17 years as district attorney, his office has solved 85 percent of murder cases, far above the national average.
“Those are very high numbers,” he said.
By dropping the charges, prosecutors preserved the chance to build a stronger case, Cruz said.
“Dismissed cases don’t have a statute of limitations,” he said.