Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins defended her prosecution of a Boston College student accused of manipulting her boyfriend into suicide and addressed high-profile disagreements with other officials that have marked her first year in office as she spoke in a televised interview Sunday.
WCVB’s Ed Harding introduced Rollins, who was the first African-American woman elected to be a Massachusetts district attorney, as “Boston’s trailblazing prosecutor,” on Sunday’s “On the Record.” But Harding and co-host Janet Wu didn’t pull any punches as they questioned Rollins about the Inyoung You case and her public friction with federal, state, and local authorities.
Wu asked why the district attorney’s office released selected text messages from among the tens of thousands You exchanged with boyfriend Alexander Urtula before his death in May.
Prosecutors from Rollins’ office allege that You used threats and verbal abuse to control Urtula, and that their toxic relationship led him to jump to his death from a Roxbury parking structure on the day he was to have graduated from Boston College. You has been indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
You’s defense attorney has claimed prosecutors are “cherry-picking” text messages to tarnish You’s reputation, and a public relations firm representing You has released a series of texts You purportedly sent Urtula on the morning of his death imploring him not to harm himself.
“We are releasing the relevant texts to prove our case,” Rollins told Wu. “And I would push back and say, you know, in most homicides that we’re dealing with, in particular domestic violence or intimate partner violence, the murderer has done something nice to their spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not why we’re here today.”
Rollins pointed to her office’s victory two weeks ago in the case of Andrew MacCormack, who was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Suffolk Superior Court jury for the 2017 killing of his wife, Vanessa Masucci, in their Revere home.
“I’m sure Andrew said nice things about Vanessa,” Rollins told Wu and Harding. “We believe the violent homicide overshadows any of the nice texts or messages he said about his wife. Similarly with Ms. You and Mr. Urtula, we’re not concerned with the nice things she may have said. It’s a cycle of violence, and she is playing right into that.”
Asked for her thoughts on a bill before the state Legislature that would make it a crime for anyone to encourage a person they know to be suicidal to take their own life, Rollins told Wu that she is watching the legislation’s path closely, and that the bill would give prosecutors another tool to help seek justice, but that she believes she can meet the burden of proof in the You case under existing law.
Rollins told Harding that in cases like those of You and Urtula and of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Bristol County for encouraging Conrad Roy to end his life, she believes — and state courts have affirmed — that the behavior exceeds First Amendment protections for free speech, despite Carter’s request that the US Supreme Court review her case on that ground.
She also stressed the differences in the two relationships, saying that You was responsible for “a meticulous, relentless, pathological breakdown” of Urtula.
When Harding marveled at the number of text messages You and Urtula exchanged — prosecutors say it was upward of 75,000 in the two months before Urtula’s suicide — Rollins suggested that “it’s generational,” and that people in their early 20s send texts in situations where an older adult might place a call or have a face-to-face exchange.
The interview also had lighter moments, as when Rollins correctly answered all four of the hosts’ pop quiz questions, which touched on the former UMass Amherst women’s lacrosse team captain’s knowledge of lacrosse, women’s collegiate athletics, local history, and the US Supreme Court.
Even when the questions got tough, Rollins kept her cool, assuring Wu that she maintains collegial relations with the public officials she has disagreed with and that she is focused on doing her job the way she promised voters she would do it.
“I like to remind people that my position is actually elected; I had to run for my job,” Rollins said, adding that she made it clear to Suffolk County voters that she wouldn’t prosecute a specific list of 15 nonviolent misdemeanors, and that those voters elected her overwhelmingly.
The local, state, and federal officials who have disagreed with her, she pointed out, are almost all appointed to their positions, but they also use their own discretion in setting some policies.
“Change is hard,” Rollins told Wu, adding later, “I think people are doing everything they can to hold the status quo, because it works for a lot of people. I ran on the fact that the legal system should work for everyone. It shouldn’t be just the wealthy.”