Reactions differ on Wall, the new Parole Board director

Josh Wall is the number two prosecutor in the Suffolk district attorney’s office. Josh Wall is the number two prosecutor in the Suffolk district attorney’s office. (Lisa Poole/File 2005)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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The man Governor Deval Patrick handpicked to overhaul the parole board has prosecuted high-profile killers, investigated police shootings, and led a panel that recommended sweeping changes to the way authorities used eyewitness evidence.

Now Josh Wall, the number two prosecutor in the Suffolk district attorney’s office, faces what will probably be the biggest challenge of his career in criminal justice: restoring public confidence in the Parole Board.

Wall, 51, has been named interim executive director of the agency, and Patrick said he eventually will make him chairman of the board, which has been lambasted by politicians and law enforcement officials following the Christmas weekend shooting of a Woburn police officer by Domenic Cinelli, a convicted armed robber paroled in 2009.

Wall’s most important and immediate task, Patrick said, will be to examine the board’s practices and establish stricter policies for overseeing offenders serving life sentences who are at high risk of reoffending and who have been convicted of the most serious crimes.

Police officials and lawyers who worked alongside Wall and against him in trial praised Patrick’s decision, saying that Wall’s experience and even-keeled disposition make him an ideal choice.

“If it was the governor’s intention to appoint someone to oversee [the Parole Board] with a profound commitment to justice, the deepest empathy for victims, a proven record as a reformer, and unassailable credentials protecting the public safety, he could not have made a finer pick than Josh Wall,’’ Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, his current boss, said in a statement.

But Patricia Garin, a Boston lawyer and director of the Prisoners Assistance Project at Northeastern University School of Law, said Wall’s appointment presents a conflict of interest because he supervised the prosecution of inmates whose applications for parole will come before the board.

“He can’t sit as a member of a Parole Board in a case he oversaw as a Suffolk County prosecutor,’’ Garin said. “We need to look closely at Josh Wall being chairman of the Parole Board in light of the number of Suffolk County cases that will come before him.’’

Wall, who graduated from Harvard in 1982 and attended law school at the University of California Berkeley, declined to comment.

State officials said that Wall will recuse himself as chairman when the board hears cases that he prosecuted. He could also recuse himself from cases he oversaw as first assistant district attorney.

About half of the state’s homicide cases and up to a third of the state’s other major crimes, like sexual assault and robberies, were committed in Suffolk County.

That means that Wall, who served in Suffolk County for 17 years, might have to recuse himself from a significant number of parole hearings.

Mario Paparozzi, former chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board and a criminal justice professor, said that if Wall abstains frequently, it will not hurt the board’s ability to render a decision, because there still will be enough members to cast a vote. The board has seven members, including the chairman.

The problem with the appointment, Paparozzi said, is that prosecutors do not have the proper background to run parole boards effectively.

“It’s typical that people who don’t have a deep knowledge of parole get appointed to parole boards, whether they’re prosecutors or not,’’ Paparozzi said. “A parole agency is primarily an agency that’s concerned with predicting risk and assessing risk. . . . In your state, you had a tragedy, and the easiest way to assuage that tragedy in the public’s eye is to put a law enforcement officer in charge. Frankly, the best thing to do is to put someone in charge who is knowledgeable about risk assessment.’’

Several former prosecutors, who are now defense lawyers, said Wall would bring fairness and credibility to the job.

“He certainly understands victims’ families and the role of victims in the criminal justice process,’’ said David Meier, former chief of the Suffolk homicide unit, who worked with Wall in the prosecutor’s office. “I don’t think Josh sees things in black and white. I think he has compassion for everyone involved in the system, whether they be a victim’s family or a defendant.’’

Michael P. Doolin, a Boston lawyer who faced off with Wall during a contentious murder trial in 1999, praised the prosecutor as a level-headed lawyer who will be as careful and methodical deciding who gets parole as he was as a prosecutor deciding what cases to try and how severe to make the charges.

“He has a tremendous challenge ahead of him,’’ Doolin said. “It has to be one of the most difficult jobs in the legal system. Every case that comes up in front of the Parole Board is a landmine. . . . I think it’s the same type of minefield, so to speak, where you have to be able to use your judgment to try and determine who’s worthy and who’s not.’’

Michael Rezendes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at