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Last Line of Defense

The High-Profile Path of J.W. Carney

Written by Allison Manning
Photos by Guru Amar Khalsa

Everyone seems to know Jay Carney. He’s the guy who defended James J. “Whitey” Bulger the mobster. And Tarek Mehanna the terrorist. And John C. Salvi the abortion clinic murderer. Plus dozens and dozens of other low-profile suspected murderers, rapists and robbers caught up in the criminal justice system.

“I tried to get the phone number 1-800-HEINOUS-CRIMES, but they said it was too long,” Carney says with a smile.

The notorious have built Carney’s legendary reputation. But those aren’t the cases that have left the deepest mark on him. It was in Middlesex County 30 years ago. He wasn’t even a defense attorney.

It was a routine rape trial, and the only outcome to ever leave the master storyteller speechless.


From the top of his bald head down to the bright purple toenail polish under his black wingtips, J.W. Carney Jr. is a showman. He loves to spin a good yarn. And after 37 years in courtrooms, he has enough to knit several sweaters.

Carney’s done this work since 1978, when he graduated from Boston College Law School and became a public defender.

Save for a five-year stint in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office, he’s defended criminals ever since.

In 2011, Carney was well on his way to earning that coveted phone number  when he was appointed to represent an aging mobster caught in Southern California. Today, that’s the case that gets him recognized on the street.


At a coffee shop around the corner from West Roxbury District Court, an older guy eavesdrops on Carney. As he gets up, he looks over at him.

“You know a guy named Whitey Bulger?” the man asks. “You look like his lawyer.”

Carney chuckles. He’s heard this one before. “You’re the second person to tell me that today,” he says. “It’s a burden I have to live with.”

After the man leaves, Carney tells a story of walking by two blue-haired ladies on the street. One asked: “Are you Bulger’s attorney?” He gave the same answer he gave the man.

“See,” one of the women said to the other. “I knew it wasn’t him. His lawyer is fatter.”

Carney spun around and clarified that it’s television that makes him — he means, Bulger’s attorney — look a couple pounds heavier.


Far fewer civilians know the name Dennis Maher.

In 1984, Carney sat on the opposite side of the courtroom as a Middlesex County prosecutor. After a few years as a public defender post-college, Carney had switched sides.

“I pledged to myself that there would not be a more ethical prosecutor than me,” he says.

The defendant, Maher, was a 23-year-old soldier charged with raping two women — one in Lowell and the other in Ayer — and sexually assaulting a third.

Maher was wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt like the suspect. He was arrested and charged. He maintained he didn’t do it.

It didn’t matter. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison for the crimes.

It seemed like a routine case, other than how it was defended. The attorney questioned the victims on whether they were sure it was Maher that raped them. Yes, they said. How sure? A hundred percent sure? Yes, they reiterated.

It was brutal, Carney says.

“I had no reason to believe I had the wrong guy,” he says now. “But I did know he had the worst lawyer in history.”

The case done, Carney went to the head of the public defender’s office and asked them to have someone look into the conviction. Maybe the horrible defense attorney missed something.

“Nobody did anything.”

While Maher sat in lockup, Carney decided it was time to head back to the other side of the courtroom, and began building his career as a defense lawyer.

He represented a 15-year-old boy, Damien Bynoe, and inadvertently changed the way minors are prosecuted for murder in the Commonwealth. Carney successfully argued that Bynoe, who shot and killed two children that were bystanders to gang gunfire, could be rehabilitated in the juvenile system. The boy served just five years, outraging the community and leading to the passage of the Copney-Grant law, named for Bynoe’s victims. Now, children as young as 14 who are charged with murder face sentencing in the adult system.

Kenneth Seguin killed his entire family, drugging and slashing his children’s throats and bludgeoning his wife with an axe. Carney argued Seguin was insane; the jury came back with second-degree murder convictions instead of first-degree. He will be eligible for parole in 2023.

And John Salvi walked into two Brookline abortion clinics and opened fire, killing two women and wounding five others. Carney was the attorney appointed to represent Salvi, and was standing next to him when Salvi was sentenced to life in prison.

Maher, meanwhile, was incarcerated at the Massachusetts Treatment Center at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex, a place for sex offenders too dangerous for release. There seemed to be no chance he’d ever leave.

He couldn’t get parole. Doing so would mean admitting to the parole board that he was a rapist. He refused. So he sat in prison, surrounded by criminals labeled “sexually dangerous predators.”

Sometimes, Carney would show up on television.

“I’d tell (the other inmates), ‘That’s the guy who sent me to prison,’” Maher says now.

Carney in the Courtroom

The Journey Begins

carney_1J. W. Carney graduates from Boston College Law in 1978, and works in the public defender’s office from 1978 to 1983. He then becomes the Middlesex County Prosecutor from 1983 to 1988.

March 5, 1984

bridgewater...prison complex....2/16/00........treatment center...inmate dennis maher. appealing rape convictions....ellement story   Library Tag     Magazine     11202011

Dennis Maher is convicted of a rape and attempted rape in Lowell, and another in Ayer, all prosecuted by Carney. He is sentenced to life in prison. Maher is pictured in 2000 after spending 16 years behind bars.


3/18/96  Globe Photo Michael Robinson-Chavez  Metro  Reporters descend on Salvi's attorney J.W. Carney, right, and his assistant lawyer Janice Bassil, center, on the steps of the Norfolk Superior Courthouse after Salvi received two life terms for first degree murder.

Carney goes into private practice as a criminal defense attorney with partner Janice Bassil. Carney, right, and Bassil are pictured on the steps of the Norfolk Superior Courthouse in 1996.


damienbynoeDamien Bynoe, 15, is charged with murder after two children are killed in gang crossfire. Carney convinces a judge that his client could be rehabilitated in the juvenile system, and Bynoe serves just five years.


kennethseguinKenneth Seguin murders his wife and two children. Carney argues an insanity defense for the Holliston man, but a jury comes back with second-degree murder convictions, believing he was mentally impaired.


Brookline Mass....John Salvi with  his attorney J. W. Carney at his  arraignment at Brookline District Court. Photo by David L Ryan/ Boston Globe. 1/ 9/94

Carney is appointed to represent John C. Salvi III, who shot and killed two receptionists at separate abortion clinics. Carney argued that Salvi was a paranoid schizophrenic, but a jury rejected that claim.


--FROM PICTUREDESK-- A salem Superior Court officer handcuffs Dr. James P. Kartell after the jury found him guilty of manslaughter, in Salem, Mass., Friday, June 23, 2000. The jury found Kartell guilty in the shooting death of Janos Vajda, which took place at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Mass. His attorney Andrew M. D'Angelo sits by his side.  (AP Photo/Mark Lorenz, Pool) library tag  06242000  metro

Dr. James Kartell, a plastic surgeon, is charged with murder after killing his estranged wife’s lover in a hospital room. Carney argues self defense, and Kartell is convicted of manslaughter.

April 3, 2003

4/3/2003  Cambridge, MA:  Dennis Maher, 42, is hugged by an unidentified man while his sister-in-law, Michelle Maher, wipes tears outside a courtroom in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, April 3, 2003.  Maher, who spent 19 years in prison for the rape of two women and attempted rape of a third, was released after prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against him based on new DNA testing that showed he did not commit the crimes.  Photo by Suzanne Kreiter  Library Tag 04042003 Metro

After DNA proves that Maher didn’t commit any of the rapes in Lowell and Ayer, the charges against him are dismissed and he is set free. Carney apologizes to Maher, and the U.S. soldier forgives him.


for Metro - 04mehanna - Ali Aboubakr and Tarek Mehanna (right) appeared to be in good spirits at the ground zero site in 2005 or 2006. (Government Exhibit)

Tarek Mehanna (right) is sentenced to 17-1/2 years for conspiring to kill American soldiers and supporting Al Qaeda. Carney says he was proud to sit next to Mehanna and predicts will have an impact on free speech.



Carney is appointed to represent James “Whitey” Bulger after the mobster is captured in 2011. Bulger is convicted of racketeering and participation in 11 of the 19 murders he was charged with.

At 62, Carney is looking toward the finish line of his career, though the defendants of the world shouldn’t fret, and the prosecutors shouldn’t yet celebrate.

A “semi-retirement” looms in 2020. He’ll no longer accept court-appointed murder cases, which eat up hours of his day, time he could be golfing with one of his younger brothers, or maybe heading down the Cape to the cottage he and his wife bought in Eastham.

“The amount of stress handling cases that enormous, I’m told, will take years off my life,” he says. “At least the years I take off will be when I’m sitting in a rocking chair, drooling.”

He and his wife, Joy Rosen, are empty nesters now. His 25-year-old son, Nat, lives in New Orleans, working as an investigator at the juvenile public defender’s office there. His daughter Julia, 29, is studying in London where she’s working toward a master’s degree in international public health.

Rosen, a vice president at Massachusetts General Hospital, often wakes up at 4 a.m. and  climbs into bed when Carney wraps up work. He’s proud to say dinner is not waiting for him when he gets home.

So his evenings are often spent at a local pub, dining on some appetizers, thinking about his next case, and chatting with the bartender.

In a courthouse, he’s just as friendly. Carney has a policy, for himself and his associates: Every time someone comes back from court, they need to have introduced themselves to someone new.


A artist sketch of the jury reading Bulger's verdict on August 12, 2013.

For Carney, that’s become a little more difficult as everyone now seems to recognize him. But still, on a recent Tuesday at West Roxbury District Court, he chatted with Michelle, the prosecutor, about her day, and asked Paul, the clerk, about his recent vacation. He introduced himself to Louie, the front-door security guard.

“It allows the wheels of justice to grind just a little more smoothly,” he says of his banter.

And to prove his point, the case he was in court for was called first. “See what I mean?” he says.

Carney’s reputation as the defender of society’s worst gives him clout not just with the criminal underworld, but also with less-hardened arrestees.

So when a 20-year-old was caught with a couple pot plants in his closet, the college kid did what any young person in trouble would do: He Googled “best lawyers in Boston” and found his hopeful savior in Carney.

Two years and $20,000 later, Carney had the student’s case dismissed and his records sealed. The money was worth it, the student said.

“It’s one of those things that as someone who’s young, it makes sense to shell out the money,” said the student, who didn’t want his name used because, well, that would defeat the purpose of having his record sealed. “He’s a face that’s worth a lot of money.”

A Punch in the Gut

Carney was sitting at his desk in 2002 when Barry Scheck called him.

Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, had news for Carney about his old Middlesex County rape case. In 1997, Scheck had filed for DNA testing in Maher’s cases, though it had taken years. The requests were denied. Then officials claimed the evidence was lost. Finally, boxes were found in the basement of the courthouse.


Maher at his Tewksbury home in 2011. (The Boston Globe)

Carney didn’t forget Maher. He sent a Boston Globe reporter to talk to Maher for a story about wrongful convictions. He wrote letters to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, asking them to test the DNA.

Finally, in 2002, the DNA testing came back. Scheck called Carney and told him: Dennis didn’t do it.

Carney couldn’t breathe.

“It was like getting a punch in the stomach, where the wind was knocked out of you,” he says. “I could not speak. To have been involved in the perpetration of terrible injustice as the prosecutor …” He trails off.

Maher walked out of the courtroom a free man on April 3, 2003 — 19 years, two months, and 29 days after he went in.

Hours after he was freed from prison, Maher walks into his parent's home In Lowell. (The Boston Globe)

He got something rare among exonerees: an apology.

The prosecutor, part of the machine that put him in prison, was not who Maher expected to see that day. But when he heard that Carney had apologized to his parents and brothers, he approached him. Carney said he was sorry, and Maher forgave him.

Maher said that Carney later told him that without that forgiveness, he’s not sure if he’d be a lawyer now.

“Because he didn’t know if he could go on,” Maher says. “Knowing he put an innocent man in prison.”

(Video footage courtesy of BC Law Innocence Program)

Carney still hasn’t let the case — or Maher — go. Not long after Maher left prison, Carney asked him to get a beer. Later, the two families — the Mahers and the Carneys — went out to dinner. Maher’s infant son dozed in a car seat while the prosecutor and the defendant chatted.

Maher, now 54, is married with a son and daughter, and he sees Carney on television sometimes.

“I tell people, ‘That’s the guy who sent me to jail, but he also had some say in how I got out,” Maher says.

The pair speaks every January to Harvard Law School students working as assistant DAs. Jack Corrigan, a former prosecutor who teaches the class, says it’s the session that most affects his idealistic students. For the students, it’s a reminder of how, despite the best intentions, the justice system can go terribly wrong.

“Jay approaches everything, including my class, with a certain degree of certitude,” Corrigan says. “To have him up there talking about trying a case in good faith and realizing something was wrong with it and being part of correcting it, it’s new territory for most of these kids.”

Corrigan worked opposite Carney on the Salvi case more than 20 years ago. His friend isn’t exactly humble, he notes, but it’s an attitude he’s earned.

“I think he enjoys the reputation he has as a defense lawyer,” Corrigan says. “And he enjoys exceeding that reputation.”

Carney can’t say why Maher’s case tugged at him for so long. Why, out of all the cases he worked on, something didn’t seem right about that one.

It’s not the only time Carney has been wrong. He tells story after story of clients who gave him far-fetched tales to back up their claims of “I didn’t do it, I swear.” Like a woman who was walking down the street with her boyfriend, who got in a fight with another man. At some point, the second guy was sliced open with a razor, and the girlfriend was arrested.

It wasn’t me, she told Carney. She said it was a guy who pulled over on the street, jumped out of his car, and started slashing the other guy before running away.

Yeah, right, Carney thought.

It wasn’t until he was in court in Chelsea later, and a guy there was arraigned on a razor-blade slashing that he thought: Could she be telling the truth? After some investigation, it turned out she was.

“Shame on me,” he says.

Carney’s been wrong enough now to know that he needs to believe his clients, no matter how guilty they seem, or how crazy their story sounds.

He’s also done the math. There have been more than 300 people, like Maher, exonerated using DNA evidence in this country. And only a fraction of all cases include DNA.

“There has to be tens of thousands of people who were wrongly convicted,” he says. Chances are, he’s represented some of those people.

So when a woman tells him that no, she didn’t shake the 6-month-old baby in her care to death, he has to believe her.

“I don’t know all the facts, but I know one thing: She did not do it,” he says. “It’s our job to find out what happened.”

Carney’s most recent client is one that he says completes the roster of despicable crimes: A schoolteacher accused of making child pornography.

Carney says he’s going to win.

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