10 Questions for the DA
The CM Magazine interview with Dan Conley '76, Suffolk County DA
Q: At a ceremony for the fifth annual White Ribbon Day Campaign this January, you said, “If our goal is to end violence against women, then we have to start with men and boys.” What should an all-boys school do to start?
A: Cases of domestic violence and sexual assault come to us from every type of relationship with every type of victim and offender, but the vast majority of them involve men’s violence against women. The White Ribbon campaign is geared toward two things: first, reminding men and boys that the best relationships are based on respect and equality rather than aggression and control, and second, urging them to stand up and speak out when they do see someone abusing a partner. These are lessons that don’t have to wait until dating age: even young boys can understand that what’s appropriate on the ice at a hockey game is wrong in a personal relationship.
Q: In April 2011, you asked the SJC to bar “Judge Let Me Go” - Raymond G. Dougan, Jr. – from hearing cases involving your attorneys. Has that happened, or will it happen, soon?
A: …It’s extremely rare for me to speak out against any of [the judiciary’s] members. But when I see a judge acting with such undeniable bias over such an extended period of time to the detriment of public safety, I have an obligation to say so. Unfortunately, the process by which these issues are resolved is completely secret and closed to public scrutiny, so we have no way of knowing whether or when they’ll be addressed. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that my job is to protect the people of Suffolk County. I’ll take every step to fulfill that mission, and all I ask is a level playing field on which to do it.
Q: The SJC ruled this month that a head-shake is as good as a “yes” in replying to police asking whether a suspect wishes to invoke the right to remain silent. Has it gotten harder each year to collect strong evidence for cases, thanks to rulings like these?
A: In that particular case, the SJC ignored federal case law that had settled this issue very clearly, and by doing so it only created more confusion as to when a defendant’s statement is and isn’t admissible. Even worse, it wasn’t merely that the defendant shook his head as a clear negative answer to the question of whether he wished to speak: when the officer asked him that question explicitly, the defendant answered, unequivocally, that he did. Court decisions like the one you mention can be very difficult to work with, and they make it much harder for police and prosecutors to do their jobs and keep the public safe. Some of the more recent rulings like this one just seem out of touch with the realities of police work in the street and prosecutors’ work in the courtroom.
Q: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that placing GPS devices on cars of suspects is considered a “search.” Are people exaggerating when they say that the technology of crime fighting is going to create a police state?
A: I do think they’re exaggerating. The world is constantly changing as a result of technological advances. There will always be some people who want to resist that change, but I think they forget that each new tool we use is as helpful in exonerating an innocent person as it is in identifying the guilty party. Think of DNA: it can prove the innocence of one person just as conclusively as it proved the guilt of another. Video evidence, cell tower records, devices that measure the body heat retained by a gun that a suspect tossed during a chase–these aren’t invasive forms of evidence. The only liberty they threaten is that of the person who committed the crime.
Q: The Boston Globe Spotlight team published an investigation on judicial leniency for drunk-drivers this fall. It made it sound like there are just a couple of bad eggs out there – a few over-lenient judges. Are there plenty of judges out there doing the right thing, day in and day out, in your eyes?
A: I have a very good working relationship with most of the judges sitting in Suffolk County. Most are fair and ethical, and they call their cases on the facts and the law. The Globe’s numbers gave me pause, though, simply because they were so lopsided. I’m curious to see how the judiciary addresses this, and how open they’ll be with their findings and potential remedies.
Q: The Globe also published a scathing indictment of the probation system in Massachusetts that has led to widespread change. Are you happy with the changes?
A: The ability to choose only the best candidates for employment has served us very well as an office. I believe that freedom should exist for every government agency, no matter what role they play. That being said, though, I’ve worked with a large number of very good probation officers here in Suffolk County, men and women who are truly committed to doing the best job they can to protect the community at large and keep their clients on the straight and narrow. At the end of the day, Boston and Suffolk County are just too busy and its cases are too serious for anyone who isn’t ready to give 110%. That’s why we have such a great collection of prosecutors and victim advocates in my office, and I suspect that’s why the probation officers here do such good work.
Q: You continue to be an active local leader for your alma mater and for West Roxbury, even coaching an undefeated flag football team for West Roxbury’s league. Have you ever lost a flag football game?
A: Catholic Memorial was and continues to be an important part of my life. The brothers and faculty at CM challenged me to give 100% of my effort 100% of the time. They had high expectations for all of us, and even more than that they taught us to embrace those expectations and make them our own. If there’s been one great lesson that I learned at CM and brought to this office, it’s that a team will only succeed if every member is working toward the same goal. I make the same pitch to my flag football teams, because this is true in football more than almost any other sport, and I hope they take it to heart the way I did. But to answer your question, no–I’ve never lost a flag-football game!
Q: Who most influenced your decision to pursue law? Was there a mentor in your first job as an attorney who had a formative impact on you?
A: There was no single person who influenced me to pursue law, but I was lucky to have a lot of support after making that decision. At Stonehill College, my advisor, Charles Serns got me thinking about becoming an attorney and working in criminal law. Once I graduated from law school, I came to work at the Suffolk DA’s office and worked with a group of men and women who really solidified my love for the job. In addition to Newman Flanagan who hired me, I owe a lot to many of my former colleagues who were always willing to offer a kind word of advice or encouragement. If you had a question on the law, or you needed some strategic advice, or really just wanted to be a better lawyer, there was always someone ready to lend a hand. I’m happy to say that camaraderie continues to be an important part of our office culture.
Q: Was Boston a more violent place to grow up in during your youth – in the turbulent 70s and 80s – or today?
A: Boston has a reputation as a parochial city, with distinct boundaries and closed neighborhoods. That’s my memory as a young person growing up here, but it’s not my perception today. There were neighborhood rivalries then that aren’t nearly as strong as they are these days. The MBTA also had a reputation as dangerous back then, but it’s much safer now. On the other hand, the low level violence we saw as kids in the 1960s and 70s may have been more common than it is today, but it was also less serious. It was fisticuffs rather than gun violence, which seems to be used more and more to settle scores in the modern era. That’s been the focus of my strongest efforts as DA: cracking down on illegal guns and working with state and federal partners to limit their availability.
Q: Being in a position of power has its privileges. Who are some notorieties you’ve been privileged to meet in your role as District Attorney?
A: As District Attorney in the state’s capital city, I’ve been able to meet the past three governors and lieutenant governors regularly and I still work closely with Mayor Menino on a wide variety of projects within the city. I’ve met athletes and dignitaries of all types, too, but I think some of the most important meetings I’ve had weren’t with celebrities at all. They were with average families whose lives were shaken as a result of violent crime. These are the people I’ll always remember most: The quiet dignity of Surendra Dangol’s family, who came here from Tibet after he was killed. The parents of Steven Odom, who maintained their faith in God even after he was murdered, and who are now activists against the illegal firearms trade. Kai Leigh Harriott, a little girl who lost her legs to a gunman’s errant bullet and had the strength to forgive him in open court. These folks have been some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met for their dignity and grace under the most awful circumstances.