Citing His Sentence For A Heroin Dealer, State Lawmakers Seek To Remove Judge

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State Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican (Sam Doran/State House News Service)
MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons (Sam Doran/State House News Service)

A superior court judge's sentence of a low-level drug dealer has turned into a debate about judicial oversight, the opioid epidemic and politics.

A group of state lawmakers is filing a bill to remove Salem Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley, saying his recent sentencing of a drug dealer was too lenient.

Feeley recently sentenced a heroin dealer to two years probation, and state Rep. James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, says because of the opioid epidemic, the dealer should have spent time behind bars.

"When we have a judge determine that they're going to let a heroin dealer back out on the street to profit from the addiction of others, it is time for us as legislators to step in," he said Wednesday.

Lyons has also accused Feeley of favoring immigrants, pointing to a court transcript where Feeley asked about the immigration consequences of a guilty plea for the dealer, Manuel Soto Vittini, who is originally from the Dominican Republic but has legal permanent resident status.

"If you are a citizen of Massachusetts, Judge Feeley would have put you behind bars. But because this individual was a non-citizen, Judge Feeley determined to put this person on the street," said Lyons.

But supporters of Feeley say the Legislature should not try to remove a judge because of a sentencing disagreement — that Feeley followed sentencing law and if lawmakers don't like that, they have the power to change it.

"These legislators are cherry-picking sentences from the transcript and taking them out of context," said Ed Ryan, a criminal defense attorney and former Massachusetts Bar Association president.

Ryan said lawmakers are not mentioning the part of that transcript where Feeley said that he would not send anyone — regardless of citizenship — to state prison on the same charges.

"This should give every citizen pause because if their fate is going to be in the hands of judge who is going to be told what to do by public opinion, of the demands of legislators, then we're all at risk," said Ryan.

Feeley's case was a routine low-level drug case, said Ryan: Prosecutors had recommended a one- to three-year sentence, but Soto Vittini's lawyer argued that it was a small amount of drugs, that his client made a mistake and was just trying to support his family.

So Ryan believes politics may be at play, because a leader of the effort to oust Feeley is Republican state lawmaker Geoff Diehl, who is running for U.S. Senate.

"He apparently perceives that this is a good issue for him to gain votes, to gain the support of people who might not vote or vote for Elizabeth Warren," Ryan said.

Diehl denies that and said he felt compelled to take action after the ruling.

"I had no intention of getting involved in this case until I saw how egregious the decision was," said Diehl.

But some Democrats also say they're concerned about the judge. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he's troubled by what he's heard, and looks forward to a report from the state Supreme Judicial Court. Lowell Rep. Colleen Garry is one of the few Democrats supporting the push to remove Feeley from office.

"We represent the people and the people are angry and if we don't have judges who are going to abide by the law and give the punishment because they feel badly for the criminal, then I think they need to be removed," she said.

Lyons said his resolution, formally called a bill of address, would have to be approved by a majority of lawmakers and would have to be approved by the governor and the Governor's Council.

While Gov. Charlie Baker has not said if he would support this specific measure, he has said it's outrageous that Feeley did not give Soto Vittini, whom the governor called a "death merchant," time in jail.

"He is not a lenient judge," said Terrence Kennedy, who is a member of the Governor's Council and an attorney who has appeared before Feeley. "He's certainly not lenient on lawyers, that's for sure."

Kennedy said lawmakers are the ones who decide the penalties for crimes and they are the ones who can change them. At this point, Kennedy says he would oppose this bill.

"We cannot be removing judges because we don't like a lawful decision they made," he said. "Based on the facts before me that this bill of address is being filed solely because Feeley made a lawful decision that people disagree with, I would not vote to remove him from office."

Lyons has also started an online petition calling for Feeley's impeachment. As of Thursday morning, about 8,800 people had signed it.

This article was originally published on June 06, 2018.

This segment aired on June 7, 2018.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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