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Boston Bomber Judge Has Tough Reputation
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Judge George O'Toole will conduct the Boston bombing trial efficiently and fairly, many predict.

Summary: Judge George O’Toole Jr. rules his courtroom in a strict, but impartial, manner—traits that many say will be of benefit during the upcoming trial for the Boston bomber.

U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. has proven to rule his courtroom in a no-nonsense manner. In October, attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as well as prosecutors, journalists, and spectators, piled into his courtroom for a hearing in the Boston bombing case.


According to the Boston Globe, many had thought that the presentment of legal issues that day would offer a peek into legal strategies the prosecution and defense may utilize in the case, and offer a preview of the trial which is scheduled to begin January 5, 2015. However, most were disappointed. “I think this will be brief,” Judge O’Toole said, and handled the legal issues within a few minutes.

Those who have been in front of the judge were not surprised. The Tsarnaev case has attracted international attention, an uncommon event in Massachusetts. A conviction could carry the death penalty. However, Judge O’Toole has remained stoic and calm on the bench, conducting short pretrial hearings and issuing concise legal rulings, even on complex questions of law. Often, his written opinions are only a few pages long.

A hearing was recently held in December in the Boston bombing case.

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Judge O’Toole was appointed to the federal bench in 1995. He has earned a reputation for not only having a no nonsense attitude toward his courtroom, but also a sense of fairness. Many predict that his sense of fairness will be especially prominent as the trial begins.

Robert Keefe, a Boston attorney with Wilmer Hale, said, “That’s one of his strengths, his ability to sit back and think, ‘What is the most fair and best way to proceed? He’s cool, and he’s calm. As a trial judge, you have to make decisions, keep matters moving, and Judge O’Toole does that.” As a young lawyer, Keefe practiced with O’Toole at Hale & Dorr, the predecessor to Keefe’s current firm, in the mid-1970s.

Emily Paavola serves as the executive director of the Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center of South Carolina. The organization represents defendants and serves as a resource for capital case data. Paavola said Judge O’Toole will receive even more attention since the case could result in the death penalty. She explained generally, “The stakes are absolutely much higher, because it’s the ultimate penalty, and we require a heightened amount of reliability in the process as a whole. That type of gate-keeping role is something the judge needs to be alert to, and focused on. Because it’s such a big undertaking, so much time and resources to go into it, you want to make sure you have that much more effort to make sure it’s done properly.”

The judge is 67 years old and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1972. He served as a partner at Hale & Door before he was appointed to the Boston Municipal Court in 1982. In 1990, he was appointed by Governor Michael S. Dukakis to the Superior Court. Former president Bill Clinton nominated him to the federal bench in 1995, and his nomination was effortlessly confirmed by the Senate.

During his tenure as a federal judge, Judge O’Toole has presided over high-profile criminal trials, as well as complex civil cases. For example, he presided over crime author Patricia Cornwell’s trial, who filed suit against her former financial adviser and was awarded $1 million in damages from a jury. However, the judge ordered a new trial, concluding that he had erred in a previous ruling.

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Judge O’Toole also presided over the contentious trial of Tarek Mehanna. Mehanna, a Sudbury resident, was convicted of supporting Al Qaeda. The judge remained unfazed at the sentencing hearing when Mehanna criticized the United States’ foreign policy and mouthed off at a prosecutor. Judge O’Toole calmly announced a 17 ½ year prison sentence.

Brian Kelly, an attorney with Nixon Peabody who previously served as a U.S. prosecutor, has tried many cases in front of the judge. He said, “He’s even-keeled, just a great judicial temperament.” Kelly recalled one case, a sexual assault trial, during which a witness ran away from the stand. “He was unflappable,” Kelly remembered.

The judge enjoys several hobbies when he’s not on the bench. He cheers for the Boston College football team, and also appreciates a good opera. He also studies history, enjoys listening to jazz music, and plays the trumpet. Previously, he played pickup basketball with his old law firm buddies.

Judge O’Toole and his wife, Lucy Flynn, regularly attend black-tie charitable events and fundraisers. Ms. Flynn is a banker and businesswoman. The couple has two grown sons, one who is attending law school, and the other who is in sales.

Jim McIntyre is the senior vice president at Boston College. Five decades ago, he was in charge of admissions at the college, and remembers recruiting the judge just out of high school. The two have remained friends since that time. “He just has this integrity,” McIntyre said. He added that O’Toole and a few other students came over to McIntyre’s home to watch the results from Nixon’s presidential election come in. O’Toole was appointed to the University Academic Senate around that time, and was the only student to serve—the body was mostly made up of faculty members. “He just handled himself very impressively,” McIntyre said.

 Last year, Tsarnaev was indicted for thirty federal counts.

Judge O’Toole has impressively handled the Tsarnaev case thus far. He has set the case for trial on January 5, which is an expeditious turnaround for a death penalty case. He has also handled the 770 filings submitted by the five defense attorneys and three U.S. prosecutors in the case in a timely manner.

The defense has submitted numerous requests to postpone the trial, including a last minute request on Tuesday. In addition, they have opposed the judge’s decision to keep the trial in Boston, as opposed to transferring it elsewhere. The defense argues it will not be possible to select an unbiased jury.

Read about the requests to transfer venue here.

However, the judge maintains that an impartial jury can be found in Boston. McIntyre commented, “You don’t see him get emotional. He has that unique way of detaching himself, to be absolutely objective, which I think is a great skill. All of us are human; we have emotions and feelings. But he has the ability to remove himself from that when he speaks.”

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