Appeals prolong ordeal for murder victim's family

Daniel Boyle's mother, Nancy, holds her slain son's Police Academy graduation photograph. Boyle's family is upset by a judge's conduct in court.
Daniel Boyle's mother, Nancy, holds her slain son's Police Academy graduation photograph. Boyle's family is upset by a judge's conduct in court. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 05, 2014

Kathleen Boyle Wrigley had started composing a letter to Common Pleas Court Judge M. Theresa Sarmina even before Sarmina vacated the death sentence of the man who killed her brother.

Her letter opens with a recurring nightmare - one Wrigley first had 23 years ago after her older brother, Daniel Boyle, a rookie police officer, was gunned down by a paroled felon during a traffic pursuit in North Philadelphia.

In it, Wrigley is there, watching. She sees the gunman jump onto the hood of Danny's cruiser. She sees Danny with his hands up, and she tries to yell, but he cannot hear. She tries to help, but her legs won't move. Then, the shots. Silence.

Sitting in Sarmina's courtroom this last year has made Wrigley feel the same way she does in her dream: helpless and invisible.

"Like we didn't even matter," Wrigley, 43, said of her family.

"Like we were furniture in the room," said Boyle's father, Patrick, a retired city detective.

In April, more than two decades after a jury sentenced Edward Bracey to die for killing the 21-year-old patrolman, the Boyle family sat through four days of hearings on whether Bracey, now 50, should remain on death row.

The hearings were only the latest chapter in years of court motions and appeals.

After two failed appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court on different grounds, Bracey's defense team now argues that he is mentally retarded and cannot be executed under a 2002 Supreme Court decision. It argues this even though defense experts testified at earlier hearings that Bracey was not mentally retarded.

In a one-paragraph ruling Jan. 10, Sarmina commuted Bracey's sentence to life, accepting the defense argument that he is impaired, a ruling that the District Attorney's Office publicly criticized and said it would appeal. The case will likely stretch on for many more years.

Revenge does not consume the Boyles.

In the 23 years since Danny Boyle became the youngest city police officer killed in the line of duty, the family has assuaged its grief by helping others in Danny's name.

There are the Officer Boyle Scholarship Fund for financially struggling families, the Officer Danny Boyle Rec Center, and the Officer Danny Boyle Ancient Order of Hibernians, which supports a home for mentally handicapped adults in New Jersey.

The Boyles say they have never expected special treatment, even with all their connections to the justice system. Patrick Boyle was on the force for 38 years, and two of Danny's uncles were also officers.

Before moving to North Dakota - where she lives with her three children and husband, who serves as lieutenant governor - Kathleen Wrigley worked for the District Attorney's Office as an advocate for the families of homicide victim's families. That's a job she took after Danny's murder. Her mother, Nancy, is a nurse.

"We have done everything we were asked to do in these last 23 years," Wrigley said, "and we have tried to do it with grace and dignity and patience and acceptance that this is the way it is and this is our place."

All those years ago at trial, the family found comfort that Bracey was given the harshest possible punishment, Wrigley said.

Bracey, then a recently released parolee, told police he shot Boyle once in a temple at Eighth Street and Germantown Avenue early on Feb. 4, 1991, to keep from going back to jail.

The Boyle family long ago accepted that appeals would likely keep Bracey from being put to death. But the family wants him to live the rest of his life on death row, instead of in the less constricted general prison population.

In 2001, the Supreme Court rejected a claim that Bracey had ineffective counsel at trial. It was during that appeal that three defense experts testified that he was not mentally impaired. Now Bracey's defense lawyers make the opposite claim.

"If you know the execution is not going to happen, then have the death penalty or don't have the death penalty," said Wrigley, who returns to Philadelphia for every hearing about her brother's killer. "But please, have mercy on the victim's families. Don't put us through this."

In April, Wrigley stood next to her father in court when a former coworker from the District Attorney's Office came over and quietly shook her hand and squeezed her father's shoulder.

Sarmina chastised the family over the small show of support, family members said.

"She scolded me from the bench," Wrigley said. "She asked me if I understood how important these proceedings were and then proceeded to tell me it was about a man's life and not a social gathering."

After the judge's upbraiding, Wrigley said she retreated into an anteroom, upset.

"I felt worried I had done something to affect the case," she said. "I felt humiliated. That it was just very unfair for her to scold me."

The incident was the beginning of what the Boyle family described as a pattern of "cruel" and "belittling" behavior by the judge, including long delays and court cancellations, Wrigley said.

"We have never felt smaller in these 23 years than we did in this judge's courtroom," Wrigley said. "There is a responsibility that comes with power. You may not want to treat people well, but you darn well better treat them fairly. ... She acted like a bully."

In a move unrelated to the Boyle case, Sarmina was transferred to civil court last week. She said she could not comment on the Boyle case.

In Sarmina's courtroom, Bracey's lawyers pointed to a recent IQ test as proof that he is impaired. The test, given by a defense expert in preparation for the appeal, showed that Bracey's score had plummeted substantially from previous tests.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out," Pat Boyle said. "Who would give their best effort on a test if it's going to lead to your execution or life on death row?"

Prosecutors Robin Godfrey and Tracey Kavanagh said Bracey's school records showed he had never been found to have a learning disability.

In October, Wrigley flew back for closing arguments and what they expected would be a ruling.

The judge said she was not ready, and postponed to Dec. 20. Before adjourning, she allowed Bracey's family members to visit with him, even though they can visit him in jail.

"It's insensitive," Kavanagh objected.

In December, a day before Wrigley was set to fly back, the judge told prosecutors that again she needed more time. A new date was set for Jan. 3.

But the courthouse was closed for snow on that day, so the Boyles gathered at their Somerton home, having been told the decision would be issued electronically through the court docket system. But it never came. Eleven more days passed with no word from the judge.

Finally, on Jan. 12, the family learned from a reporter that a decision had been made.

"There was a lot of crying and anger and sadness," Pat Boyle said.

Bracey will remain on death row throughout the appeal, said Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office.

The appeal will likely drag on for years.

The Boyles say they will not let anger define them. They will keep working to memorialize Danny's life, planning a February benefit for the scholarship fund at the police union hall.

"It will not beat us," Pat Boyle said.

Wrigley said she would finish her letter to Sarmina.

She wants to ask the judge the same question she asked her in court: "Do you understand how important this process is?" Does she understand how it rips open old wounds - and how she made her family feel small and invisible?

And she wants her to know that her nightmares have returned.


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759

@MikeNewall

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