Focus shifts to possible failures of DA in case of judge’s alleged affair

Focus shifts to possible failures of DA in case of judge’s alleged affair

In a case that has now climbed to the state’s highest court, two defendants are claiming that the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office failed in its duty to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct by former first justice Douglas Darnbrough that potentially resulted in unfair trials. 

The case involves two men convicted of sexual crimes in New Bedford District Court. In February 2023, each appealed their convictions, requesting new trials based on allegations that Darnbrough was carrying on an affair with the assistant district attorney who prosecuted them, which they claimed jeopardized the integrity of their trials. Defense attorney James McKenna filed an appeal for new trials with the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in April after his first appeal was denied in February 2024 in New Bedford District Court. 

Thomas M. Quinn III

District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III’s office now has until next Friday, June 14, to file its response to the appeal. The SJC will schedule oral arguments after the DA’s brief is filed. 

Gregg Miliote, spokesperson for DA Quinn’s office, declined to comment on the SJC appeal. 

In a letter dated May 8, an SJC clerk wrote that the court is soliciting amicus briefs from third parties on the subject of “whether the district court erred in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial.” It is also reviewing “whether the district attorney satisfied his duty to investigate misconduct” and “whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s request for discovery of materials.” The court solicits amicus briefs as expert testimony, often on cases involving ethics or complex issues involving the court system. 

Whereas the district court appeal in February focused on the allegations and records related to the affair, the appeal now at the SJC focuses on what McKenna describes as the failure of the court and the DA’s office to investigate allegations of the affair and judicial misconduct. 

The DA’s office is required and failed to “conduct a thorough investigation” into allegations of misconduct, McKenna argued, citing precedent set in similar cases in Massachusetts. “The Commonwealth’s breach of the duty to investigate means justice was not done,” McKenna wrote in the SJC appeal. 

The DA’s office initially claimed in a Jan. 5 court hearing that it had conducted an internal investigation and found “no evidence” of a sexual relationship between Darnbrough and the prosecutor. However, after the judge ordered the DA’s office to release a summary of that investigation, the DA’s office walked back the claim — revealing that it had not conducted an investigation into the alleged affair at all. Instead, the DA’s office had relied on an investigation led by the state Trial Court, which was never released beyond the DA’s summary of it. 

Allegations of the affair first surfaced in September 2023, in a series of anonymous letters sent to top court officials and attorneys. Though unsubstantiated, the letters claimed Darnbrough concealed the alleged affair while continuing to preside over cases prosecuted by his alleged romantic partner.

In February, the district judge considering the matter denied the request for a new trial because, as he wrote in his ruling, the “claims rest almost exclusively on the anonymous, unsigned, and unsworn notes.” The judge also denied McKenna’s request to obtain complete records of the state Trial Court and the District Attorney’s investigations into the alleged affair. 

McKenna said that the judge’s ruling in February blocking his access to records amounted to a “Catch-22”: A new trial was denied due to lack of evidence because the judge denied his motion that could have produced such evidence. 

McKenna appealed the ruling to the SJC, which has oversight over the state’s district courts. “The district court’s failure to order the production of the investigative reports in the Commonwealth’s possession comprised both an abuse of discretion and a breach of [the defendant’s] constitutional right,” McKenna wrote. 

The two men McKenna is representing are currently serving out 2½-year sentences. One is Gerson Pascual-Santana, who was convicted of molesting a child under the age of 14. The other is Jonathan Rascao, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a mentally disabled person. 

Pascual-Santana’s case is the first to come to the SJC. The appeals court has stayed Rascao’s case pending a decision in the Pascual-Santana case, which will serve as precedent for Rascao’s case. If the court rules in favor of Pascual-Santana, it will likely open the door for dozens more cases involving Judge Darnbrough and the ADA to be retried, those involved said. 

There are still many questions left unanswered after the district court judge’s February ruling. Shortly after the anonymous letters circulated, Darnbrough stopped appearing in court. A Trial Court spokesperson at the time said he was on “vacation.” When he returned, he was transferred from New Bedford to Plymouth District Court, where he sat for less than one month before tendering his resignation to the state. 

McKenna argued that there is still no clear explanation for Darnbrough’s resignation. Darnbrough’s lawyer at the time cited health reasons. But McKenna cast doubt on the judge’s timeline at a Jan. 5 court hearing. 

“When someone resigns because of health reasons, first, they’re not transferred to Plymouth,” McKenna argued. 

McKenna has gained the support of the state’s public defender’s agency and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), each of which are pushing for transparency into a case that the state’s Trial Court and the DA’s office have played close to the chest. 

The ACLUM also made clear its position that elements of the case and the allegations of misconduct remain unclear. It raised concern about what it described as “evolving, inconsistent assertions” made by the DA’s office. 

The DA’s office stated in its summary of the Trial Court investigation that the anonymous letters were part of a smear campaign aimed at harassing its prosecutor. The DA’s office released a statement in February in support of the judge’s ruling. “The judge clearly credited our representations and found the defendant’s filings in this matter were ‘speculative, uncorroborated and conclusory in nature,’” Quinn wrote.

The Light is not publishing the name of the prosecutor because the only reference to her is in the anonymous letters. Her name is not used in either appeal or the DA’s report.

McKenna described the DA’s office as “playing hide-n-seek” with its records rather than upholding its duties. He argued that the DA’s office has a “constitutional duty to investigate . . . and it was not met,” he wrote. In his appeal, requesting a new trial, he wrote: “Anything less imperils the integrity of our system of justice.”

Email reporter Will Sennott at [email protected].

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