The first test of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on releasing prisoners because of the coronavirus has come from an unlikely place. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins asked Tuesday that someone be returned to jail.
It what some may argue was an unusual step for Rollins, who has led the call for decarceration amid the pandemic.
Rollins filed an emergency petition with the state's highest court asking to return 40-year-old William Utley to jail, arguing he poses a "grave risk to public safety." Her petition said a lower court judge abused her discretion by releasing Utley over concerns about COVID-19.
Utley was held on second-degree murder charges for the 2018 stabbing of 33-year-old Anthony Young in Dorchester. He also faces firearms and operating under the influence charges. Last week, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach released Utley to home confinement and GPS monitoring after his attorneys argued he is undergoing chemotherapy for chronic myeloid leukemia — a condition that makes him vulnerable to the virus.
“COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to people with pre-existing medical conditions such as cancer, and is even more dangerous to people with compromised immune system due to cancer treatment,” Utley’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.
But Rollins said Utley was under GPS monitoring for firearms charges when he was arrested for murder. Her office added he was booked for the firearms charges while being monitored by GPS, too, and his most recent OUI was also his fifth. Additionally, Rollins argued Utley has not complied with court orders more than a dozen times.
"The significant danger this defendant poses to the people of Suffolk County far outweighs any claims he is making of a personal health risk," Rollins said in a statement.
Utley was released from custody last week — the same day the SJC was considering a request to reduce incarceration due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Rollins was among four Massachusetts district attorneys who asked the high court to take steps to release more prisoners in an effort to stem transmission of the disease in correctional settings.
The SJC decided Friday that a narrow group of prisoners could petition for release, such as those held pre-trial on non-violent offenses.
In her petition, Rollins cites the SJC ruling and says Judge Roach did not follow it appropriately and should have continued to hold Utley without bail, rather than allow him to be released with monitoring.
"There's no reason to believe such monitoring will protect the community in the future, especially in light of the potential sentences the defendant faces and his history of defaults," Rollins' petition stated.
Utley's attorney, Michael Tumposky, said he will fight Rollins' petition.
The lawyer said it's safer for Utley to remain quarantined in an apartment owned by his mother in Boston. He said Utley should be released while awaiting trial. The trial was scheduled to begin this week but has been postponed because courts are only hearing emergency matters.
"Should he just sit in jail indefinitely?" Tumposky said "These are unique circumstances and traditional bail considerations are not the issue. This is a question of life or death."
He said he expects an SJC ruling on the DA's petition within a week.