The XX Factor

Martha Coakley: Tough on Satan, Baby Shakers

Last week Emily reminded us that if elected, Martha Coakley will stand vigilant against the worship of Satan. This starstruck 1999 profile of Coakley, unearthed by Dan Riehl, suggests that her perchant for prosecutorial excess extends beyond distaste for alleged ritual abuse. Coakley is portrayed as a complete badass: “A problem solver … a doer. Icy. Unflappable … shaking hands in the night, her brilliant yellow hair glinting beneath the street lamp, those shimmering pumps pivoting on the pavement.” (I am not making this up.) Her greatest achievement at this point was the zealous prosecution of 19-year-old Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted of shaking an 8-month-old to death. This was the case that introduced the United States to the term ” shaken baby syndrome .” Coakley is pretty jazzed about the whole thing, though probably not as excited as the profile writer:

No one knows the benefit of exposure better than Coakley. She was a relatively anonymous assistant prosecutor in the Middlesex office until the media explosion that engulfed the Woodward case slapped her into the red plush armchair of the Today Show and onto television screens around the world… Coakley was the victor in the long, tangled process that was the nanny case. It was she, the most poised, media-savvy member of the prosecutorial team, who was generally put forth instead of lead prosecutor Gerard T. Leone to field press questions and appear on a platoon of television shows, including 60 Minutes. Her opponents in the DA’s race criticized her for exploiting the case for political gain and for using an image from the trial in a campaign ad.

The prosecution’s decision to seek first-degree murder charges looks less glowing in retrospect. The science on which Woodward was convicted has been discredited; the prosecution’s own medical expert reversed his opinion in 2007. Woodward was very possibly an innocent 19-year-old, separated from her family and country, subject to the wild accusations of publicity-seeking prosecutors. One can make excuses for Coakley, who was only the most public part of her team, but her ascendance reveals something about the incentive structure with which ambitious district attorneys are faced. Overreach is rewarded. If she goes down in the polls today it won’t be because she was too willing to indulge the fantasies of the electorate.