Friday, September 16, 2005

Injustice for almost all

Injustice for almost all

By Brian McGrory
(September 16, 2005)

Every once in a while, usually for brief periods of time, the world starts to gain the veneer of sanity.

Papi hits another game-winning home run. The moronic head of FEMA is sent packing from New Orleans. George W. Bush accepts blame for the miserable federal response to Katrina.

Then, just when you think that all the pieces are falling into place and that maybe, just maybe, this collective life isn't so crazy after all, something happens to remind you that, yes, in fact, it really is.

Take the case of Nancy Gertner, Palmer & Dodge, and an especially repugnant criminal by the name of Daniel LaPlante.

By way of acquaintance, Gertner is a US District Court judge. Palmer & Dodge is an elite downtown law firm.

Daniel LaPlante is a convicted triple murderer and not just any triple murderer, either. He broke into a neighbor's house in rural Townsend in 1987, raped and executed the pregnant mother who lived there, then drowned her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in separate bathtubs. He smirked at the jury that convicted him.

The Superior Court judge who presided over his trial, Robert Barton, now retired, said: ''Of the 150 murder cases I heard, he is one of only five that I would personally have no problem pulling the switch on the electric chair myself. He was incorrigible, he would never be rehabbed, and we'd be wasting our money feeding and clothing him."

We've also wasted our money doing something else: pushing a lawsuit on his behalf. Which is where Gertner and Palmer & Dodge fit in.

In 2001, LaPlante complained about his safety in prison, and he was placed under extensive lockup. Unhappy with that, he sued state officials in federal court. Among other complaints, he said he wasn't given unfettered access to the prison law library. He said he was mislabeled as a sex offender. He complained that officials intercepted ''sexually explicit" photographs mailed to him. He said a guard stole his shower shoes.

Palmer & Dodge took the case, supposedly pro bono, though please read on. In fact, it didn't just take the case, it seemed to devote itself to it, assigning a partner, a senior associate, a midlevel associate, and a junior associate -- four lawyers in all.

Before I go on, spare me the argument from all the Lexus Liberals that even the most heinous criminals have the right to legal representation. They do. But is a convicted murderer really entitled to a battery of downtown lawyers because he wasn't getting access to the library and his pornographic pictures in the mail?

Palmer & Dodge won the suit, and, lo and behold, its pro bono work wasn't free any more. Federal law allows a firm to submit a bill when it wins a civil rights case, and it did: $125,000 in all. Judge Gertner ordered the state to pay $99,981 of it.

That bears repeating: State taxpayers spent $100,000 on behalf of a convicted killer who slaughtered a pregnant woman and her kids.

''We did it as efficiently as we could," said George Olson, a Palmer & Dodge partner. ''When we took the case, we didn't expect to be compensated."

Of course not.

Gertner blamed the state Department of Correction for fighting the suit and running up legal costs. She didn't respond to a message yesterday.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly was the assistant district attorney who prosecuted LaPlante on murder, and I called him to see if he remembered the case.

''I'll take that case to my grave," he said, quietly recounting the green OshKosh overalls that the little boy wore when they pulled his body from the tub. He described LaPlante as a constant escape risk who, given the chance, would absolutely kill again.

''To be worried about his civil rights?" he added. ''The victims had no civil rights. He executed them."

In short, LaPlante gets top-shelf legal representation. Palmer & Dodge gets another hundred grand. And as too often happens, state taxpayers get nothing more than the bill.


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