Nominee quizzed about murder case, dangerousness hearings

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THINKSTOCK

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 14, 2014…. One of the toughest cases defense attorney William Sullivan ever tried was the murder trial of an 18-year-old Wayland football player accused of strangling and slashing his ex-girlfriend a month after they both graduated from high school.

Sullivan defended Nathaniel Fujita, who was convicted of murdering Lauren Astley in March 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The two had dated for three years, and had recently broke off the relationship when Astley was found dead in a marshy area off Route 27.

“It was a horrible case. It was very, very sad,” Sullivan told members of the Governor’s Council Wednesday during a hearing on his nomination by Gov. Deval Patrick to become a Superior Court judge.

Sullivan, a defense attorney who runs a private practice in Quincy, was asked about the case by Councilor Marilyn Devaney.

The two families had known each other for years, he said. “You would walk into the courtroom, and just feel the sadness,” Sullivan said.

During the trial, Sullivan did not dispute that Fujita killed Astley, but argued he experienced a “brief psychotic episode” and could not control his actions. The murder made national headlines, and was later featured on the crime show 48 Hours. Sullivan appeared on the show to talk about the mental health aspects of the case.

He told council members he originally was not planning to do the television interview, only agreeing after Fujita’s family requested he be a part of it.

“They were concerned that without somebody talking about the mental health issue, that it might get lost,” he said.

The topic of domestic violence came up later in the hearing when Sullivan said he was “not a big fan” of dangerousness hearings, questioning the constitutionality of them. Under state law, prosecutors can request pretrial detention or release with conditions, based on the likelihood the defendant will hurt someone.

Sullivan said when he started as a lawyer, only federal prosecutors could hold someone in custody. He said he has never been comfortable with the process, but recognizes it is state law and individuals should be held if “the Commonwealth can prove and meet that burden.”

Councilor Jennie Caissie said his opinion of dangerousness hearings concerned her.

“I got two words for you – Jared Remy,” Caissie said, referring to the case of a Waltham man accused of murdering his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel, last August.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s office has been criticized for its handling of the case before Martel’s murder.
Sullivan said his opinion about dangerousness hearings is philosophical, and would not influence him on the bench.

“As I’m sitting here, I’m not a fan. If I’m on the bench….if I am a judge, I am sworn to do that,” he said.

Sullivan said when he was a prosecutor in the Norfolk District Attorney’s office in the 1980s, dangerousness hearings did not exist, leaving prosecutors to approach the problem in different ways. He has watched the hearings develop as a defense attorney, he told the council.

Councilor Terrence Kennedy asked Sullivan if he has seen an increase in the number of hearings, known as 58A, since the Remy case. Sullivan said yes, describing it as a “seismic shift.”

“This is not an uncommon type of reaction when you have these types of highly publicized cases,” Sullivan said.

Kennedy asked if he thinks people are being held as an overreaction. Sullivan said, “I would say there probably is.”

Caissie also asked Sullivan his opinion of putting the legalization of casino gambling on the ballot, a case currently before the state Supreme Judicial Court. Sullivan said it was a tough question because the gaming law is so far along in the process.

“There is something that seems a little bit out of sorts, to let it get this far into the process, and then say now we are going to be able to stop this,” he said. “If they were led to believe that this thing was in stone, that’s kind of hard.”

Caissie later said she was impressed with his credentials.

Sullivan served from 2003 to 2007 on the state Judicial Nominating Commission, the panel that recommends judicial candidates to the governor. Councilor Michael Albano asked him which judge who appeared before the commission he would compare himself to. Sullivan said it was difficult to compare.

Sullivan currently is a partner at the law firm Sullivan & Sweeney in Quincy. In the early 1980s, he worked for two years as an assistant district attorney in the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office. He also worked as a special assistant to the Quincy city solicitor from 2006 to 2008.

He received his law degree from Boston College Law School, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame.

Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey said prosecutors will be sad to see him go because they like the challenge he presents when trying a case. “Billy is one of those people that raises the game,” he said.

“We think he is the type of fair-minded reasonable individual we would all like to see on the bench,” Morrissey said.

He added, “I hope you will consider the fact that even prosecutors wish him well.”

Norfolk County prosecutor Jeanmarie Carroll, who has worked on opposite sides from Sullivan for many years, described him as someone who represents his clients as aggressively and skillfully as any attorney she has ever seen. “I can clearly state in my mind, he represents the very best of the bar,” she said.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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