Rollins: Lock him up

Whether you call it a Nixon-goes-to-China moment or just an example of the shades of grey that color lots of criminal justice issues, Rachael Rollins is making news in a surprising way: The reform-minded Suffolk district attorney, who is part of a national wave of progressive prosecutors calling for a turn away from the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades, is railing against judges who have gone soft on a defendant facing a murder and gun charge.

In a case involves William Utley, a Boston man facing several violent charges who was released earlier this month with a GPS ankle bracelet by a Superior Court judge because of the heightened risk of coronavirus in correctional facilities. Utley is suffering from leukemia, for which he was receiving treatment, and his attorney said he would be particularly vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus infection.

Days after his release the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that some pretrial defendants could be released because of the coronavirus risks in jails and prisons. Rollins applauded the April 3 SJC decision. “I am grateful for the speed with which the SJC made its decision. Lives are a stake and every hour matters,” she said in a statement following the ruling.

But Rollins says Utley, who was out on bail on a firearm charge when arrested for a 2018 fatal stabbing in Grove Hall bar, is not someone suitable for release. The April 3 SJC ruling excluded those charged with many violent offenses.

Rollins’s office opposed the Superior Court judge’s order, and last week she asked a single justice of the SJC to issue an emergency ruling returning Utley behind bars.

“I fully understand the risk that COVID-19 poses to everyone, including people who are incarcerated,’’ Rollins said in a statement last week. “Mr. Utley, however, is accused of murdering someone while he was on pre-trial release for firearm charges and while on GPS monitoring. In addition to committing murder, in a separately charged incident he was also arrested for his 5th OUI, again, all while on pre-trial release with a GPS monitor for the aforementioned firearm charges.”

Yesterday, SJC Justice Elspeth Cypher rejected Rollins’s petition and allowed Utley to remain free. “The defendant faces a high risk of critical illness or death if he were to contract COVID-19,” she wrote. Cypher also said the DA’s evidence on on the firearm and second-degree murder charges “does not appear strong.”

Rollins called the ruling “disappointing” and said, “I stand proudly by my team’s extraordinary effort to address threats to the safety of our communities in Suffolk County.”

Rollins has always maintained that her progresive reform agenda is aimed at ensuring public safety while also recognizing the harms done by tough-on-crime era policies to those involved in the criminal justice system. That invariably involves making lots of tough judgments calls, something she alluded to earlier this month in lauding the SJC decision to allow release of some inmates.

“I will always balance the important rights and needs of victims and survivors and the safety of our communities while remembering that no one in the pre-trial or post-conviction population was held in anticipation of, or sentenced to, death,” she said.



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