The Politics of Murder: Was The Convicted Teenager, Eddie O’Brien, and In One of Boston’s Most Infamous Murder Trials Actually Innocent?

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By  Victoria Hewlett

When the public becomes fixated on something, we all know how quickly facts get left behind for popular rumors, prominent special-interest agendas and ideologies. Sometimes, public opinion is wrong.


That’s just what happened to Eddie O’Brien according to Margo Nash, former bar counsel and guardian ad litem in the 1995 case of a 15 year-old boy who was convicted of first degree murder. She believes he was innocent, and that a corrupted judicial system stood in the way of his fair defense. The infamous O’Brien case is currently under review by the Innocence Program who is investigating.


Eddie was charged in the mid-90s, when political fervor was ramping up against “super-predators”, a racially-charged term to refer to homicidal inner city youths.  


O’Brien was a white, Catholic teenager…and he might have been the perfect target for a political win for the prosecution. Was there a concerted effort to ignore the evidence against Eddie O’Brien being the murderer of Janet Downing? Nash thinks so.


The Politics of Murder, Nash’s thrilling investigative book on the O’Brien case, paints the picture of a corrupted judicial system which convicted an innocent boy to advance a political agenda.


Nash’s side of the story hardly leaves any piece of evidence unaddressed. She has gone back and entirely reinvestigated the case, piecing together an over-arching political influence behind the failure of O’Brien’s defense, an important part that she says she missed the first time.
Margo explains her conviction to stick with the case and to work so tirelessly to prove Eddie’s innocence in her book:


“I have often cringed at the realization that I completely missed the big picture twenty years ago. But to be fair, the big picture took years to develop and emerge into a legible image…today, I finally understand what actually happened to Eddie O’Brien and who he has spent more than half of his life behind bars.”


Nash argues that the person who tried the case against Eddie O’Brien, the county’s District Attorney at the time, had political motives to use Eddie’s case to reform juvenile criminal justice law and put himself into a position to run for Attorney General. She has done her homework and provided incredible evidence and a compelling narrative to tell that side of the story.


Even at the time that Eddie’s case was decided, controversy was brewing over the apparent lack of investigation into the brother-in-law of Janet Downing. An article in the editorial South Coast Today, posted in 1997, commented:
“His parents’ anger with the verdict was directed at investigators who they said did not seriously investigate Janet Downing’s brother-in-law whom she apparently had evicted from her house several months before the crime.” (


Those protests from O’Brien’s parents, then just another element of the great public spectacle the case turned out to be, are explored in-depth in Nash’s Politics of Murder. In fact, she lays out exactly how she believes corruption within the judicial system led to evidence being systematically ignored and Eddie O’Brien being targeted and framed.


Is it true? Margo Nash certainly outlines a well-investigated and well thought-out theory as to why she thinks it is. She also holds with her the testimony of several who worked closely on the case who confirmed that they believed in Eddie’s innocence.  


Enough evidence has been brought forward to put Eddie’s case on the list for the Innocence Program, an organization which works to appeal wrongful conviction cases and get innocent people out of prison.  


Nash’s work to uncover the truth behind this case picks apart the legal evidence and proceedings, but it goes even further. This book paints the image of the context in which this trial happened to show readers just what happened to fool the Boston public into thinking an innocent 15-year-old boy was guilty of murder.


Whether you buy the story she uncovered or not, Nash’s masterful feat of weaving together this story should give pause to anyone who trusts the integrity of the judicial system. Nash shows just how easily the social networks of powerful people within a local court system can lead to an influential person manipulating the process and infringing on the rights of ordinary Americans.  


From biased appointments to the court to political intimidation to key figures on the case or to general masking of the real story with rhetorical games and legal tricks, Nash shows just how realistic political corruption in the court is.


The central argument of The Politics of Murder depends on the former Middlesex District Attorney, Thomas J. Reilly, former governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, and their political aspirations to run for Attorney General and US Senator.  


Imagine being in a particular political moment when the public was in a frenzy over perceived danger in the streets from young, soulless, homicidal “super-predators” who threatened to unweave the very fabric of society. Imagine being in a moment in which the pressure was on to change policy so certain juveniles would be tried as adults in the criminal justice system.


Now imagine the opportunity Thomas J. Reilly and William Weld, both politicians aspiring for a higher office, saw in the Eddie O’Brien case. Here was a young 15-year-old who looked like he may be guilty of a sadistic crime. Try and convict this kid, use it as political leverage to make the juvenile system stricter and win political points with your constituents that will turn into votes later.


And when it looked like that kid might not have been guilty after all, when evidence to the contrary comes up, they just had to use their respective powers to influence to case to their advantage.


Thomas Reilly, in an unprecedented move to personally try a case as District Attorney, took on the Eddie O’Brien case himself. With the help of the O’Brien case, Governor Weld would sign into law a





Bill that required anyone aged 14, 15 or 16 charged with murder to be tried as an adult. Governor Weld would also nominate a key figure in the O’Brien case that Nash argues was biased against the defendant.  


It wasn’t hard to see the interests merging, the political actions taken as a result of the case, and just how the conviction of Eddie O’Brien would be convenient for a number of powerful people.  


It looks like Eddie O’Brien is going to get another chance to make his case and prove his innocence. Margo Nash believes so much in O’Brien’s innocence that she put together a comprehensive image of political corruption in the legal system.


O’Brien has spent over 21 years in jail for a crime that he and others close to him maintain he didn’t commit. His trial was headed by a prosecution team who was great at playing the legal system, but Margo Nash has unearthed new evidence that warrants a full investigation on the decades-old case.


Margo speaks highly of Eddie O’Brien, a man who she calls “a good man, a spiritual man, a forgiving man”. She says she has kept in touch with the 35-year old and his parents, and that he helped her piece together the puzzle of the O’Brien case in order to write this book.


In the opening pages of The Politics of Murder, she introduces his case as one which “would turn out to be the catalyst which changed juvenile law in Massachusetts and sent children to adult prisons for the rest of their natural lives. It also catapulted political careers and perverted the orderly administration of justice that he (Eddie), his parents, and I, until then, all very much believed in.”


The Politics of Murder very much could be the first time that the story of Eddie O’Brien, from the fateful night that led to his conviction through the legal proceedings that followed, has been told in all honesty. His story swept the news in the mid-1990s, but it’s likely that the public by-and-large was seeing only half of the story.


Was everyone from the public to the defense team blinded by a thin veil hiding deep corruption? Has Eddie O’Brien, charged at 15 years old, spent 21 years in prison as an innocent man and a victim of political ambition?
You can read Margo Nash’s book for yourself and decide. The Politics of Murder is now available for on Wild Blue Press’s website here. ( and on


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