Meier’s intensity as a homicide prosecutor was legendary. As a trial neared, he focused like a laser. You could barely approach him, says David Procopio, a former spokesman for the Suffolk DA’s office. Meier tackled his preparation like a scholar, filling three-ring binders with detailed notes, the margins crammed with arrows, checks, and other symbols. “That trial and that case became his life,” Procopio says.
On the occasions when a case didn’t go his way, Meier wore the loss on his face. In 2004, after a jury acquitted Kyle Bryant of murdering his pregnant 14-year-old girlfriend, Chauntae Jones — even after Bryant told police he’d been present when Jones was stabbed, bludgeoned, and buried in Mattapan — Meier could be seen outside the Suffolk courthouse amid distraught members of Jones’s family. He stared into space, shellshocked.
Over his dozen years in Suffolk County, Meier proved that, working in the toughest neighborhoods, on some of the most horrific crimes, he could be relentless in pursuing and winning convictions. He also proved that justice meant more than putting criminals in prison.
THE THREE MEN SAT around a table in a small meeting room at MCI-Shirley: David Meier from the DA’s office, attorney James Sultan, and Sultan’s client, James Haley, there in his prison garb, locked up for 34 years on a 1972 conviction for a Roxbury murder. This was late 2007. Haley, after receiving a bundle of police documents from a public records request, made a persuasive case that his trial had been unfair. Potentially exculpatory evidence had never been turned over to his defense.
It was an odd dynamic that day at the state house of correction. Ordinarily, Sultan says, he would never have let a prosecutor come talk directly to his client. But this was David Meier. He knew Meier was only after the truth. Meier discussed the possibility of Haley pleading guilty to a lesser charge and walking free. Haley said no. He said he couldn’t admit to something he didn’t do. (Meier says he can’t talk about the case, because it remains in civil litigation.)
Meier later filed a motion to vacate Haley’s conviction, saying the state could no longer be confident in the integrity of the trial more than three decades earlier. A judge agreed, and in January 2008 Haley became a free man. But Haley’s release had nothing to do with whether he was innocent or guilty. Indeed, Haley’s former sister-in-law maintained after he got out that she had seen him kill the victim, who was her boyfriend. The DA’s office opted not to retry him, saying too much time had passed to mount an effective case, but prosecutors were clear that this was no exoneration. The operative question was, did James Haley get a fair trial? The only reasonable answer was no.
Meier applied the same standards to a series of other cases, becoming the driving force in Boston behind repairing errors of the past. He helped free and exonerate several men wrongfully convicted of murder, including Donnell Johnson, found guilty in 1996 of killing 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan two years earlier. Johnson spent five years in prison until a separate federal drug investigation led to guilty pleas by two other men.
There was also Marlon Passley, sentenced to life for a 1995 Boston murder he didn’t commit and whom Meier asked a judge to free in 1999. “In the end, he said, ‘This was as satisfying as any conviction.’ Those were his words,” Ralph Martin recalls Meier saying of the Passley case. “It defies any stereotypical view of a tough prosecutor. He is a tough lawyer, but he’s not cut that way at all.” Sultan puts it differently. “There can be a bureaucratic or intellectual devotion to a concept of due process or a concept of fairness,” he says. “David’s view has a much more humanistic aspect to it.”
Meier is sensitive about this perception, not wanting to give the impression that his moral compass makes him some kind of softie. David Procopio remembers him once joking: “Someday I’d like to get as many headlines for actually putting somebody in jail as I have for getting somebody else out.” Putting people in jail is what prosecutors are expected to do, though. That’s how they’re measured. Meier, who is a trustee of the New England Innocence Project, has always kept a different score card. In his view, what good is toughness without integrity, without credibility?
It can be a difficult ideal to uphold, especially given the many pressures against reopening an old case or halting an existing one. Meier seems almost impervious to them. “He’s going to drill down until he gets the answer, and then he’s going to be completely transparent about it,” says Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.Continued...