This week, a Massachusetts judge ruled that William Utley, who has leukemia, can remain home while he awaits trial on a murder charge.
“The defendant faces a high risk of critical illness or death if he were to contract COVID-19,” Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote in her April 13 order, affirming a lower court’s ruling.
Last month, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach ordered Utley to be released from the Nashua Street Jail because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was to be on home confinement, monitored by various surveillance devices.
Utley had been held for about 18 months as a pretrial detainee before he was released on April 1. In 2018, prior to his incarceration, Utley was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a type of disease in which a patient’s bone marrow produces too many white blood cells. He continues to take chemotherapy medication.
“You share everything: a cell, a bathroom, soap, showers, rec, everything,” Utley, 40, said of conditions at the jail in a statement through his attorneys. “One person gets sick, everyone gets sick. I was just sitting around waiting on the virus to hit.”
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, led by Rachael Rollins, opposed Roach’s order. It filed a petition with the single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court seeking to “take a violent felon off the streets and return him back to custody where he belongs,” the office said in a statement.
On Monday, Cypher rejected the DA’s position. A DA spokesperson told The Appeal in an email they will not ask the court’s full bench to review their request to detain Utley. Cypher’s ruling is “disappointing,” Rollins said in a statement.
“I stand proudly by my team’s extraordinary effort to address threats to the safety of our communities in Suffolk County,” she said. “I will always fight for the safety of the people of Suffolk County and sincerely hope that Mr. Utley causes no further harm to our community.”
Utley has been charged in three separate incidents with murder, unlawful possession of and discharging a firearm, and operating under the influence. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In the judge’s ruling this week, she noted that the evidence against him in both the weapons and murder cases “does not appear strong.” If the DA’s office had prevailed, and Utley was sent back to jail, “they would have sent an innocent man to his death,” wrote Alex Welsh, one of Utley’s attorneys, in a statement to The Appeal.
“Prosecutors have the near-absolute power to detain people like Mr. Utley, indefinitely, without proving him guilty,” wrote Welsh. “DA Rollins chose to use that power against Mr. Utley to send a tough on crime message.”
The Commonwealth’s case on the murder charge relies on a GPS monitor that allegedly places Utley in the area where the crime occurred. The other evidence is a statement from a mutual friend of Utley and the victim who claimed Utley told him, “essentially ‘it was not supposed to happen like that,’” according to an affidavit by Michael Tumposky, who is representing Utley on the murder charge. This person, he wrote, has “given three different versions of what transpired on the night in question.”
“The case against him is exceedingly weak,” Tumposky told The Appeal. “Without a motive, without any forensics, without any witnesses, this is going to be a very difficult case for the Commonwealth to make at trial.”
As businesses and schools have shuttered across the state, jury trials have ceased as well, delaying Utley’s trials. He had requested to go to trial on the murder charge in January, but the court set his trial for March, according to his attorneys’ petition. Then, at the prosecutor’s request, and over Utley’s objection, the trial was postponed. It was rescheduled for April 6.
“Too many people have spent too many years of their lives languishing in jails for crimes they never should have been charged with in the first place,” Welsh wrote to The Appeal. “It took this pandemic, which took away Mr. Utley’s right to trial and almost ended his life, to finally force us to act and free him.”
Rollins’s opposition to Utley’s release seems to contradict her stated commitment to criminal justice reform. She was elected DA in 2018, after running as a candidate committed to lowering incarceration rates and addressing racial disparities. Recently, she has spoken out about the need to prevent infections among prisoners by releasing those who do not pose a threat to public safety.
“We must consider decarceration because the nature of these incarceration facilities, despite best efforts, makes it virtually impossible to practice effectively the recommended defenses against COVID-19: social distancing and rigorous personal hygiene,” Rollins said in a statement on March 31. “For those pre-trial detainees, the situation is even more dire. Those individuals have yet to be found guilty of their alleged crime.”
In an open letter to Rollins, Andrea James, founder of the Massachusetts-based Families for Justice as Healing, condemned her office’s handling of Utley’s case. James, who is formerly incarcerated, noted in the letter that she has supported Rollins, and will continue to do so.
“We are counting on you to focus on decarceration to save people’s lives, not petitioning to return a sick man to jail who has not been convicted or sentenced,” wrote James.
To curb the spread of the coronavirus, which is transmitted through respiratory droplets expelled when an infected person sneezes or coughs—or even, scientists fear, when they exhale or talk—stay-at-home orders have been issued across the globe. Last month, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close and banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
But conditions in jails and prisons make it impossible to take the precautions, like social distancing, that are necessary to prevent transmission. The Nashua Street Jail, where Utley was incarcerated, was at 105 percent capacity as of March 30, according to Massachusetts Department of Correction data. Today, the Boston Globe reported that six incarcerated people held on bail at the jail are confirmed to have COVID-19. Seven correctional officers and one medical contractor have also tested positive for the virus, according to the Globe.
“Stick him in a prison cell, you’re almost saying that—yup, he’s not going to live,” said Utley’s mother, Casandra Moran. Since his release, Utley has been staying in a home owned by Moran. She brings him groceries once a week, she said, and blows a kiss before she leaves.
“He’s able to get healthy food,” she said. “He’s able to take a shower every day. He’s able to have clean clothes.”
While at the jail, Utley was often sick from his chemotherapy medication, according to a letter from a social services advocate with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal representation for those who cannot afford an attorney.
“Can you put me on single cell status? I have to use the toilet multiple times from the meds, having a cellmate just doesn’t work,” Utley wrote on a sick slip in January, according to the advocate’s letter. Incarcerated patients use sick slips to request medical attention. In another slip submitted that month, he wrote, “I have been having difficulty holding down the food, it not agreeing with my meds and my stomach.”
Medical staff determined he didn’t need to be moved to a single cell or receive an altered diet, according to the advocate’s letter.
Utley’s oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center urged the courts to release him as soon as possible; if he becomes infected, she wrote in a letter submitted with his attorneys’ petition, it is “highly likely he could become critically ill.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who are immunocompromised, including from cancer treatment, are at increased risk of developing complications if they contract the virus.
“I won’t be able to protect myself in there. There is no way to isolate,” Utley said in a statement through one of his attorneys, of the jail. “I know once I get it, I won’t be able to fight it off.”