Middlesex DA says there is no better job
'Career prosecutor' is doing exactly what he wants to do
By Eric Moskowitz, Globe Staff | July 11, 2008
Prosecutors, especially those who yearn for higher office, have been known to flock to television cameras. But back when he was lead prosecutor in the murder trial of British au pair Louise Woodward, Gerard T. Leone Jr. let others address the media. Leone handled the opening argument, cross-examined Woodward, and convinced a jury in his closing that the 19-year-old was guilty of second-degree murder in the death of baby Matthew Eappen. But he ceded television time to fellow prosecutor Martha Coakley and District Attorney Thomas F. Reilly - partly because Leone wasn't interested, partly because his wife had recently given birth and he preferred to get home to his family.
Nearly 11 years later, that same spirit guides Leone as Middlesex district attorney, but the spotlight has now found him.
In a recent nine-day span, Leone's office obtained convictions in three prominent murder trials, secured indictments against employees accused of stealing nearly $1 million from Tufts University, and investigated a state senator on charges that he sexually harassed or accosted several women.
The ensuing attention might prompt an elected DA to take advantage of the television cameras, especially one whose office propelled its three most recent occupants to attorney general. But Leone keeps his press conferences short, befitting a football coach's son who clamps down on the sides of the lectern and delivers firm, succinct statements.
His friends see Leone as a career prosecutor, not a politician. He has spent two decades going after criminals and representing victims at the local, state, and federal level, and his personal record includes convictions of Woodward, state treasury officials who stole $9.7 million from taxpayers, and Richard Reid, the attempted shoe bomber and Al Qaeda terrorist thwarted on a trans-Atlantic flight. In 2006, Leone was elected to lead the Middlesex district attorney's office.
"There's no better job than this one," he said in a recent interview after a jury found former radio host James Keown guilty of first-degree murder for poisoning his wife with antifreeze.
The week before, Leone's staff had secured murder convictions of Neil Entwistle, who had absconded to England after killing his wife and infant daughter; and James Brescia, who hired a hit man to kill the boyfriend of his estranged wife.
But Leone focuses as much, if not more, on the lower-profile cases among the 40,000-plus cases that his office of 250 lawyers handles each year. He has created units to specialize in domestic violence and online crimes, and he has established new programs to prevent, not just prosecute, crimes against women, children, and the elderly.
Leone views his staff as advocates for victims and the vulnerable. "We speak for people with no voice," he said after Entwistle's conviction.
That work is what drives Leone, friends said. Although he has proved adept at politics - he raised well over $500,000 for his first campaign, and he earned enough support to scare away five state lawmakers who initially sought to replace Coakley after she left to run for attorney general - Leone said that politics is something to endure as a means to attaining the job.
"That's not what motivates him," said Reilly, who hired Leone away from the Suffolk district attorney's office in the early 1990s. He recalled that Leone's closing argument in the Woodward case remains the best he has ever heard, focused, moving, easily understandable.
But he said Leone is distinguished most by his compassion for others.
"If I had a son, I'd want him to be just like Gerry Leone," said Reilly, the former attorney general, who thinks that Leone, who is not quite 46, will become the best Middlesex district attorney of at least the past half-century. "He may already have accomplished that."
The sharpest criticism has come on his handling of allegations against state Senator J. James Marzilli Jr. In May, Leone decided not to prosecute Marzilli after an Arlington woman said he had touched her inappropriately. A few weeks later, police arrested Marzilli on charges that he had harassed or accosted four women in downtown Lowell. Leone obtained a grand jury indictment of Marzilli on those charges on July 1.
Wendy Murphy, a lawyer and victim's advocate, criticized Leone for his decision not to bring charges on behalf of the Arlington woman who accused Marzilli before his Lowell arrest. But she said Leone is generally fair, empathetic, and apolitical.
"I still think of him as a cut above," said Murphy, a former prosecutor who has known Leone for two decades.
Leone said four of his top staff investigated the Arlington case for five weeks and found factual and legal inadequacies. "We're trusted by the public to prosecute only those cases that are dictated by the facts and the law," he said.
Andrew Good, the veteran defense lawyer who represented Woodward, said Leone is a steadfast law enforcement type who can be slow to acknowledge police misconduct.
But Good acknowledged Leone's ability, particularly at connecting with jurors, saying, "I've disagreed with him and had huge battles with him, but he's a very professional lawyer."
Leone grew up in Franklin, son of a homemaker and the local athletic director and football coach, and he envisioned a career similar to that of his father's. He did not become a coach, but he married a coach's daughter, Wendy Bicknell, whose father, Jack, coached Boston College in the Doug Flutie era.
During a prep year at Phillips Academy, Leone received the Tippett Memorial Award, given to athletes for loyalty, courage, and modesty. Four years later he collected a similar honor as a Harvard strong safety, winning the Lamar Award for dedication to team and concern for fellow man. In addition to football, Leone joined Harvard's boxing team. He continued to fight as an amateur after college; when his wife persuaded him to give that up, he moonlighted as a referee for 15 years, eventually officiating at title bouts on three continents.
After Harvard, Leone moved in with his grandfather, a hardware employee whose toolkit Leone still keeps in his office, in Brighton. Leone tried a corporate job for a year, but abandoned it to spend days counseling homeless people at the Pine Street Inn and working as a gofer for the Suffolk district attorney, while spending nights at Suffolk Law School.
After graduating in 1989, Leone prosecuted cases in Roxbury District Court for a year and a half before Reilly hired him. He handled a succession of Middlesex jobs, including serving on the special investigations unit, as head of the District Court division, as leader of an initiative called Community Based Justice to manage and prevent school violence, and as deputy first assistant. "Every job that I gave him, he did it better than anyone before," Reilly said.
Leone followed Reilly to the AG's office in 1999 as criminal chief. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Leone left to join the US attorney's office as the area's first antiterrorism coordinator.
He won national recognition for bringing together previously disconnected federal, state, and local law enforcement and emergency responders.
He also prosecuted Reid; a replica of Reid's black hightop sneaker, wires and all, adorns a plaque in Leone's office.
Still, Leone missed the local cases and connections in the DA's office, so he left to run for the position when it opened. After winning, he quickly unveiled new initiatives, including a program at Winchester Hospital to train new parents on the dangers of shaking babies. He also extended Community Based Justice from high schools to middle schools and began making the rounds at local school meetings.
Leone has handled some cases himself, and he has maintained his connections with victims and their families. Their photos and mementos line his office, along with his children's artwork.
Mary Ellen McPherson, whose son was severely beaten in a 1996 case that Leone prosecuted, said Leone's sensitivity made her feel comfortable testifying.
Tracking his career, she is excited to see him now before the TV cameras and has made up her mind for Leone's future, saying, "He should run for governor."