Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins: 2
Obstructionist District Court judges: 0.
That’s how I see the scoreboard after Rollins’s latest slam-dunk victory Tuesday, in which her office prevailed in wiping out a conviction that had left a defendant, Osman Bilal, subject to immediate deportation to Somalia, a country he hasn’t lived in since he was 2 days old.
A ruling Tuesday afternoon by Supreme Judicial Court Justice David Lowy — acting in a single-judge appellate session — allowed the Suffolk DA’s office to effectively expunge Bilal’s guilty plea in a 2011 larceny case that had left him unable to renew his permanent immigrant status. With Lowy’s ruling, Bilal will be free to remain in his adopted country.
“This case, to me, shows that the criminal justice system always chooses finality over justice, and we’re not going to do that any longer,” Rollins said in a telephone interview after Lowy’s ruling came down.
As reported by the Globe’s Shelley Murphy, Suffolk County prosecutors and Bilal’s defense attorney had attempted to join forces to make Bilal’s conviction go away. In November, they filed a motion for a new trial in the case. That procedural move was to have been followed by prosecutors dropping the matter, officially known as a nolle prosequi.
District Court Judge Michael Coyne granted a motion for a new trial. But he later vacated his ruling, after learning that another judge had earlier refused to reopen the case. He accused the lawyers of trying to pull one over on him by not disclosing their prior motions, even though the record of the case was sitting right in front of him, had he bothered to read it. Coyne went so far as to accuse the lawyers of professional misconduct.
Let me explain Bilal’s circumstance. He left Somalia with his parents when he was just 2 days old. After 10 years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, the family settled in Boston. At 19, he was convicted of a misdemeanor for stealing a couple of chains from a street vendor. He pleaded guilty to larceny and served a year of probation.
But that plea came with a cost: because larceny is classified as crime of “moral turpitude,” Bilal can’t renew his green card granting him status as a legal permanent resident.
And without that, he is subject to deportation at any time. Subject to being shipped back to a country he left before he was one week old. For what?
Coyne’s decision not to allow a new trial — or a dismissal — was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which is how it landed in Lowy’s lap. Citing longstanding precedent, Lowy ruled that Coyne’s decision to grant a new trial couldn’t be walked back, and that prosecutors have a legal right to drop the case, no questions asked. Lowy further ruled that there had been no misconduct.
“I’m really happy for Mr. Bilal and my general counsel, who I think was slandered,” Rollins said with her usual candor. “I think justice won today.”
The case was one of at least two dozen in which Suffolk County prosecutors have sought to undo convictions fraught with what Rollins calls “unjust collateral consequences.” Rollins vowed that there will be more such cases to come.
“I had adopted a policy in March that we were going to look at collateral consequences every single time,” Rollins said. “The answer may not always be yes. But we’re going to take a look at it every time.”
She noted that her office had refused to reconsider the case of a man who had been convicted of rape. Rollins said he has subsequently been deported. The policy, she said, is primarily intended to apply to nonviolent offenders.
Rollins cited Bilal as an example of successful rehabilitation. He has lived quietly in Charlestown since his case was resolved, and his employers at a restaurant in the North End enthusiastically supported his bid to stay in the country. He also won major support from More Than Words, a nonprofit that works with youth and has mentored him since 2012.
“He’s what we want to happen. We want people to be rehabilitated and not to come back in contact with the system. He’s an immigrant success story. “
But this ruling was not just about immigration. It was also a blow against judges who have been skeptical of Rollins’s progressive agenda and sought to derail it. It echoes an SJC justice’s ruling last year that found that Rollins’s office could not be forced to prosecute a protester at the Straight Pride Parade.
Rollins isn’t shy about criticizing judges who challenges what she views as her authority, and she had pointed criticism of Judge Sally Kelly, who repeatedly rebuffed efforts to reopen Bilal’s case.
“People would rather have this case linger on some nine years later in front of the same judge who has made it very clear that she thinks this individual should be deported, because she wants to be right,” Rollins said. “I think there are a lot of people invested in the system working the way it always has. And at the end of the day it’s bigger than that.”
Without much doubt, Rollins’s battles with some judges will continue. But, for now, she’s winning. And the real victor Tuesday was Osman Bilal. He gets to stay, and he should.