Martha Coakley’s legal career has been dominated by cases that seek to protect children. She joined the Middlesex district attorney’s office in 1986, and found her stride five years later when she was appointed the chief of the child abuse prosecution unit. It was in this role that she first saw the spotlight, when British au pair Louise Woodward was accused of fatally shaking a baby in her care in 1997.
“Right from the get-go it was clear that the Woodward case was going to be an extremely high-profile case, an extremely important case for the Middlesex County district attorney’s office,” said David Frank of Lawyers Weekly. “So the fact that Martha Coakley was selected for that case, along with Gerry Leone, is certainly evidence of the fact that she was considered a very bright, important part of that office.”
Coakley won a second-degree murder conviction, but the judge later changed it to manslaughter. The following year, Coakley was elected Middlesex district attorney.
Soon after taking office, the controversial Fells Acres Day Care case resurfaced. The case was from the 1980s, when Violet Amirault and her children, Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, were convicted of sexually abusing children at their day care center in Malden.
When Coakley became district attorney, there was new research that showed prosecutors’ leading questioning made it impossible to tell if the children were telling the truth.
Violet was released in 1995, Cheryl four years later. But when her brother Gerald, who’d served 15 years, asked for parole, Coakley did everything in her power to prevent it, including holding a press conference with Fells Acres victims, such as Jennifer Bennett.
“You all don’t have to live what I have gone through. What we have gone through,” Bennett said at the conference. “When this happened, we were hurt beyond words. We have had to live in this nightmare for the rest of our lives. Fifteen years doesn’t make up for what he has done.”
Gerald Amirualt won parole three years later.
Coakley has also distinguished herself as a prosecutor of clergy who allegedly abused children. In 2002, she was the first DA in the state to bring abuse-related criminal charges against a priest.
John Geoghan was suspected of molesting as many as 130 children, but the statute of limitations and evidence only allowed him to be charged and convicted of one count of child sexual assault. He was sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison, which some believed was too long. But Coakley defended the sentence.
“We hope that it serves as a message — and an important message — about the importance of bringing to light as soon as possible incidents of sexual or physical child abuse,” Coakley said.
After Geoghan’s conviction, more allegations of abuse flooded her office. Most were too old to prosecute. But in 2005 her office successfully convicted retired priest Paul Shanley of child rape. This week, the state’s highest court will hear arguments about whether or not Shanley should get a new trial.
Coakley’s success with difficult cases has won her admiration from people such as Scott Harshbarger, the former Middlesex district attorney who first hired Coakley to his office.
“I think that in these cases, particularly the high-profile ones, what you see is Martha Coakley performing as a top-flight professional,” Harshbarger said. “You may or may not agree with the positions, but it’s very hard to argue that she did anything other than look at the law and the facts.”
With her high profile in the clergy sexual abuse cases, Coakley was elected attorney general in 2006, the year a ceiling panel fell in a Big Dig tunnel, killing a Jamaica Plain woman.
In 2008, she dropped criminal charges against Bechtel-Parsons Brinckerhoff in exchange for a financial settlement. The Big Dig contractors admitted responsibility for leaks in the tunnels and the ceiling collapse, and paid the state $458 million. But Coakley was criticized for that settlement, said David Frank of Lawyers Weekly.
“There was obviously a lot of controversy surrounding that decision, there were a lot of people who felt that the ultimate settlement that was reached was not nearly enough,” Frank said. “But we saw that Martha Coakley took a very difficult political case and came out with at least a resolution, at least a way to bring some closure to the Big Dig.”
Coakley’s role as attorney general has broadened her resume from criminal prosecutions to defending the state’s business and consumer laws. She’s also championed ethics reform and the rights of same-sex couples to get married.
It’s from the AG’s office that Martha Coakley is launching her bid for the U.S. Senate. But it’s her high profile in cases such as Woodward and Geoghan that make her a candidate with name recognition.