December 15, 2017
On Dec. 11, Judge Jeffrey Locke acquitted three former corrections officers at Bridgewater State Hospital who each faced a manslaughter and civil rights charge in connection with the death of Joshua Messier. (“Judge clears three former guards in death of patient at Bridgewater State Hospital”) The verdict surprised some in the courtroom, but after years of investigating this case, I expected Judge Locke’s verdict would follow the letter of the law.
In the days following Mr. Messier’s death on May 5, 2009, State Police assigned to my office embarked on an intensive probe of the incident, as we do more than 300 times a year responding to death investigations in Plymouth County. State Police and veteran prosecutors conducted interviews with 60 witnesses, including Department of Corrections’ staff, 32 inmates and Mr. Messier’s mother. Investigators studied video surveillance and reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative reports, psychiatric records, medical records and training records. The investigation also included a detailed review of the facts by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
After more than a year of examination, our office met with Mr. Messier’s mother and notified her that we had concluded our investigation and found that there was insufficient evidence to charge any of the three corrections officers criminally with her son’s death.
In 2014, we conducted a second review of the evidence and re-interviewed the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on the cause of the death. We subsequently and additionally requested that the Essex District Attorney perform an independent review of the investigation. Essex reached the same conclusion, and determined that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with criminal charges. Our decision not to prosecute was based on facts and the law, not on politics, emotions or the opinions of academics who choose to try cases in the media and not in a court of law.
Bridgewater State Hospital was under intense public scrutiny for poor patient care and outdated training and protocols. After a series of negative press articles on Bridgewater, in an unprecedented move, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was then engaged in a campaign for governor, took a “homicide” investigation away from a sitting district attorney. She ordered an inquest into the case, appointed special prosecutor Martin Murphy and proceeded with the prosecution of officers.
During the six-day trial, Judge Locke reviewed all of the evidence, heard witness testimony, watched the grainy surveillance video and interviewed the medical examiner. All of the same evidence our investigators pored over previously as part of our thorough and transparent investigation. Eight years after Mr. Messier’s death, the three former guards were found not guilty on all charges.
There were no winners with this verdict. Family members of Mr. Messier fought to get him the mental health services he needed and entrusted those at Bridgewater State Hospital with his care. The system failed Mr. Messier and the system failed the three men who were performing their dangerous jobs as corrections officers that day, following procedures in place at Bridgewater State Hospital. There is no doubt that the Messier case cast a dark shadow over Bridgewater State Hospital, but it also shone a light on changes necessary at the institution. Governor Baker is to be commended for his efforts to improve treatment and services at Bridgewater State Hospital, including revamping training and transferring operations to an independent correctional care company.
Joshua Messier’s death while seeking mental health treatment at Bridgewater State Hospital was truly a tragedy, but not a crime.