In High-Profile Prosecutions, Martha Coakley Made Her Name

Martha Coakley, then Middlesex County district attorney, holds a news conference (AP)

Martha Coakley holds a news conference in 1999 on the Louise Woodward case, in which a British au pair was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of an eight-month-old child in Newton. The year after Woodward's manslaughter conviction, Coakley was elected Middlesex County attorney general. (AP)

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.”

Big Dig

Coakley talks about pictures of the 2006 Big Dig tunnel collapse during a news conference on the incident in Aug. 2007. (AP)

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.

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  • Tanya Willow

    Not sure if an AG after a conviction for conviction’s sake is someone I want in the senate. Certainly the Amirault family was destroyed by what many felt was a witch hunt but gave Ms. Coakley the kind of name that allows her to run for a US Senate seat. (“Better hang wrong man than no man.”) Also, in a “Patriot Act” spy on citizens world, do I really want an AG passing legislation? Don’t think so.

  • Glorybe1929

    I think Ms Coakley could go to the International World Court in the Hague and sell her case of Sexual Slavery of children by Roman Catholic Clergy and their henchmen who cover it up on a daily basis around the world.

  • Randy

    “Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its veins.”- Ted Kennedy

    Martha Coakley has given away public beach rights in Rexhame, MA to her cousin’s own private neighborhood corporation.

    Martha Coakley had accepted an unethical Honorary Doctorate Degree from Suffolk University while investigating the university.

    Martha Coakley failed to protect a witness in a home invasion case during her time as a district attorney working with child abuse cases.

    Martha Coakley failed to investigate rampant corruption in clergy sex abuse reporting violations at Marshfield Police.

    Martha Coakley was afraid of Cartoon Network Light Brights and thought them a viable terrorism threat.

    Martha Coakley, voted for Hillary Clinton even after delegates were released and told to vote for Obama because she felt more historically bound to vote for a woman who had no chance than for black man had the nomination of his party.

    Martha Coakley is deceitful, not worthy of her current position, never mind running for senate.

    She lacks the integrity to be Ted Kennedy’s successor in the senate.



    The Rev. Paul R. Shanley is an archetypal figure, a product of the clerical system that spawned, enabled and protected him.

    He speaks to the tragic need to change all states’ inadequate childhood sexual abuse statutes for the protection of children.

    To even consider that Shanley remained a priest for 43 years after the first credible and official complaint was made to the Archdiocese of Boston in 1961 is appalling.

    Moreover, that he will remain a priest forever, even though he was officially laicized by the Holy See in 2004, because the church teaches that there is some indelible priestly character taken on by the soul during ordination is even more distressing.

    It is insulting to the priests I know, especially those I have met across the country who attempt to minister to two and even three parish communities in rural areas of Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana and Minnesota.

    However, the more important reality is not that Shanley may retain forever some indelible priestly mark. Rather, it is that the possibility exists that he may obtain a new trial.

    If life were fair, Shanley would spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated. Children, young people and vulnerable adults would never again be put in harm’s way as they were since Shanley’s 1960 ordination in the Archdiocese of Boston.

    If life were fair and church officials like Cardinals Medeiros, Cushing and Law and Bishops Daily, Mulcahy and John McCormack, who knew about Shanley early on, had done what they should have done, there would be no entertaining the possibility of a new trail.

    This reality is much harder to stomach and it is the reason why the citizens of all of our states should be supporting legislation that will forever remove all criminal and civil statutes of limitation regarding the sexual abuse of children.

    It is unconscionable and downright immoral for churches of any denomination to be opposing the removal of statutes of limitation and fighting allegations of crimes, known to be credible, in court on the basis of arbitrary statutes.

    This is tragic and it speaks to the skewed value we as a society place on children, especially those victims of childhood sexual abuse.

    Church history tells us that the problems of sexual abuse were seriously condemned in the earliest days of the church. Church Councils and Canon Law were very specific in their condemnations of sexual aberrations and just as specific as to punishments, sometimes even including death.

    As members of a community of believers, the people of God, we say we are concerned with the rights of the unborn. We say we are concerned with protecting the rights of immigrants, legal or illegal. We say we are concerned with the trafficking of human beings.

    But while we may take the moral high ground on these issues, many of us ignore the victims of childhood sexual abuse who are right in front of us and instead talk about the abuse victims who must be in it for the money along with their greedy lawyers, make inflammatory statements about the anti-catholic attitudes of anyone who would suggest accountability and the bias of just about every newspaper in the country, calling down God’s eternal wrath on them from time to time.

    None of which does much to address the problem.

    This is a continuing societal problem, a tragedy of unspeakable horrors which must be dealt with, but justice, like charity, has to begin at home.

    We are all still waiting for that promised accountability and transparency even while then United States Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Wilton Gregory was telling us that, “The terrible history recorded here today is history.”

    No, it is not behind us as Gregory would have wished because church records, forced into the public venue by courts across the country and around the world, have brought that reality home to us with a vengeance.

    Jesus said, “the truth shall set you free,” but when will the truth be known?

    Pope John Paul II did not do what needed to be done and Pope Benedict has come and gone yet the tragedy continues and so does the heartache.

    Real accountability requires that all arbitrary statutes of limitation, criminal and civil, on the sexual abuse of our children be removed and that a window of at least two years be provided to allow previously time barred cases to be brought forward in a court of law.

    Justice and charity are what Jesus taught. He never said it was contingent on the price tag. The people of all states and religious persuasions deserve better and our churches should be leading the way, not building barriers that thwart access to justice.

    And Paul R. Shanley?

    He should be kept in jail.

    Sister Maureen Paul Turlish is a educator and member of the Delaware nonpartisan coalition Child Victims Voice. She testified before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees in support of Delaware’s 2007 Child Victims Law whic removed all statutes of limitation in regard to childhood sexual abuse and provided a two year civil window for bringing forward previously time barred cases.

  • G.L. Dryfoos

    When Ms Coakley can give the Amiraults back all the years she took away from them, only then would I consider her for higher office. The only public position she deserves is bent over, in the public stocks, on the Boston Common.

  • Michael

    Martha Coakley did not make her name prosecuting political corruption. Every political corruption case during her time as AG has been prosecuted by the US Attorney’s office not the Mass AG.

  • Lizoptixtom
  • etyjetuykk
  • Polterrer
  • sonra salt

    Martha Coakley has honed her skills in the tough world of prosecution. We are hoping to fill a seat whose legacy is ‘equality’; voting rights; civil rights; access to health care for all; support for immigrants. The state of Massachusetts has a strong history of representing these rights in our Senate. As AG and as a prosecutor this is not the experience or I believe the interest of Martha Coakley. She seems dangerously attracted by the ‘Homeland Security’ protection from the vague threats of a ‘war on terror’ which much of the Obama adminstration has dropped as useful terms. I admire her stance on the Stupak amendment, but I do not believe that someone who will dig into to build coalitions to solve problems, but that she would continue her use of ‘law and order’ which has had such a heavy hand in this country that we have one of the largest incarcerated populations in the world. We need government to build coalitions social programs to solve problems before they cost us money and tragedy. I don’t believe that Martha Coakley will be ready to build important social change through strenghtening social protection and funding.

  • Warren

    AG Coakley, has shown by her deeds and actions, to lack the integrity that is necessary to hold the office of AG, never mind the office of Senator of this CommonWealth. If you just review the ‘accomplishments’ listed in this article with more than a superficial eye, you notice a trend. She exploits the cases that she is involved with for politicaly gain. In the end it isn’t about justice, it is about “just us” her and her agenda that is served by her actions. If she had any integrity she would have brought to light the true nature and events in the Fells Acre case. Not it would not have been politiclly expedient to do so, but it would have been the ‘right thing’ to do. The fact that she did the opposite, with such zeal, tells me all that I need to know about her!

    She will not be getting my vote!

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