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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

The big picture


It was the right decision not to run again, he says, but Kevin Burke confesses to a moment of confusion when he scanned the ballot yesterday and did not see his name.

''I was ready for it, but it was still odd,'' Burke says of confronting another man's name in the space his own had occupied for six election cycles in Essex County.

It took only the drive from the polls to work, hearing an incendiary talk radio host decry wasteful spending in the courts, for nostalgia for his 24 years as district attorney to morph into relief. ''He's telling a caller how much money the state could save if it just eliminated all the $135,000-a-year court clerks,'' he sighed. ''Not even judges make that kind of money but, these days, who wants the truth get in the way of anger?''

It was not anger, but passion, that characterized Burke's tenure as the people's lawyer on the North Shore. The job, like the cases that found their way to the courthouse, got more compelling for him as they got more complex. Assault was not a simple criminal offense once he began to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. Child abuse was not a simple act of battering when he began to see the pattern of manipulation employed by adults who prey on children.

''We can't put those things back in a box,'' he says. ''We need to address the causes of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse. It isn't enough to prosecute the offenders.''

Burke does not envy Jonathan Blodgett, a former assistant district attorney who won a three-way Democratic primary in September to run without Republican opposition yesterday in the general election. The fiscal crisis that has necessitated budget cuts across state government has not spared the justice system. If anything, those cuts land harder on a system whose services most taxpayers rarely see unless they are victimized by crime.

''When I hear gubernatorial candidates talking about taking $100 million from the justice system, I know they just don't get it,'' Burke laments. ''In busy, urban district courts, young ADAs are up against it every day. We are sending them into court with 15 minutes preparation. That isn't enough time to do the job as it needs to be done.''

Twenty-four years has not been time enough for Kevin Burke to accomplish all he hoped, but few would dispute that he made an impressive start. It was Burke's efforts that led to passage of the Victims Bill of Rights, legislation requiring the courts to respond to the needs of victims of crime. ''When I began, victims were not even on the radar screen,'' Burke recalls. ''We can never make them whole but, at least now, when victims walk through our doors there is every expectation that they have rights and that they deserve services.''

Burke expanded outreach to schools, helping to develop a curriculum to prevent hate crimes and identifying at-risk youth before they turn up in juvenile court. ''If you see the job only as prosecuting crime, you miss the big picture,'' he says.

That reality has never been clearer than in the last two years, when Burke's office has been at the heart of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The prosecution of Christopher Reardon, the Middleton church worker who victimized dozens of children, was a window for Burke into the secrecy and denial that plagues his church. ''It has been painful, but it has been so important to get justice for these children,'' he says.

Burke's immediate future is uncertain. At Acting Governor Jane Swift's request, he is leading a task force examining the implications of legalized gambling. Longer term, he hopes to put his experience to work in the private sector at a law firm.

The radio talk show host he heard on the drive to work would have us believe the justice system is populated by hacks, motivated by greed. He never met Kevin Burke.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/6/2002.
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