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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region August 31, 1997

A death next door - continued

Meanwhile, investigators at the Downing house were stunned by the grisly scene. It was clear that Janet Downing - just 5 feet 2 inches tall - had fought for her life; she left a trail of blood to prove it. She apparently made it to the front door, where her blood was smeared, and halfway up the stairs leading to the second floor, before the struggle ended downstairs in the dining room.

She had a broken rib and a punctured lung. The knife used to kill her snapped apart during the attack, and a piece of the knife - described in court as the hilt - that connected the blade to the handle was discovered on the stairwell. The medical examiner counted 97 knife wounds.

One expert during the pretrial hearings characterized Downing's killer as a psychosexual sadist, someone who spent time cutting Downing after she had been fatally stabbed. The killer took the time to open Downing's blouse, make small incisions in her bra, and carve semicircular cuts in her chest, although he avoided her breasts. The 22 horizontal slices on her neck were made carefully, with the blade of the knife apparently held in place against her skin, and her head rolled left and right. It was, the expert said, the work of someone rehearsing for decapitation.

Janet was probably already dead on her dining room floor when help arrived, though ambulance workers, who felt her still-warm body, worked to resuscitate her. Jean McGeary remembers her sister phoning to say that an ambulance was at the top of the hill; minutes later, she was watching her friend's body roll past on a stretcher. The entire neighborhood was outside, drawn by the flashing lights and sirens. McGeary turned to Big Ed and said: ``Ed, tell me. Is she alive?'' He answered: ``It would be a miracle.''

Two days later, on July 25, Eddie O'Brien was arrested in connection with the homicide of Janet Downing.

Heading into the trial, the prosecution has physical evidence and witnesses to support its case, and the defense has an explanation.

The prosecution, led by Middlesex District Attorney Thomas F. Reilly, has fingerprints that forensic experts have testified are O'Brien's, soaked in Downing's blood. Prosecutors also have blood scraped from O'Brien's shin when he was treated at Somerville Hospital the night of the killing that they say matches Downing's. DNA experts have testified that blood matching O'Brien's was recovered from several places at the crime scene.

Authorities have never recovered a murder weapon, but they do have a statement from a clerk at the Mid-Nite Convenient store who says O'Brien left a knife, one with a loose hilt, in the store the night before Downing was slain. The clerk says that he didn't see the knife again after O'Brien worked at the store on the morning of July 23.

And then there are the Downing boys' recollections of conversations that, prosecutors say, revealed O'Brien's fascination with Janet Downing. Ryan recalled that Eddie had told him that he could see Janet Downing undress at night through a window; Ryan told him to stop doing it. Paul testified that he was changing a light bulb in his mother's bedroom one evening when Eddie O'Brien phoned the house to see what was going on. In other conversations, Eddie criticized Janet Downing's cooking and called her a lesbian.

Ryan also has recounted a conversation on the night before the killing that seems ominous only in retrospect. Eddie O'Brien asked Ryan why nothing ever seemed to upset him. According to Ryan, O'Brien said: ``Did you ever get mad like you want to hurt somebody?''

The defense, led by attorney Robert A. George, says that O'Brien has never harmed anyone and was running scared the night of the murder, frightened by a stranger he encountered in Downing's house.

According to Eddie, he walked into Downing's house, saw Janet lying on the dining room floor, touched her bloody body to see what was wrong, and then was threatened by a large man wielding a knife, who told him to run from the house. Then, five minutes later in Union Square, O'Brien says, he was mugged by two strangers and cut during the struggle.

O'Brien has told that story repeatedly, once while hooked to a polygraph and under the influence of sodium amytal, which George, O'Brien's lawyer, calls a ``truth serum.'' George has tried to introduce a videotape showing O'Brien telling his story under the influence of sodium amytal, but the effect of the drug is seriously doubted by many in the legal community, and no court has ever allowed this kind of evidence to be introduced.

O'Brien's lawyers already have tried to have some of the prosecution's potential evidence excluded. The two pornographic movies found by police in the O'Briens' trash barrel are not relevant, George says; it's not surprising for a teenager to have pornographic material when he works at a store where it is sold. And there is a good reason why O'Brien had a Boston Herald newspaper from June 27 on his bureau - one with a front page dedicated to a sensational suburban stabbing case in which the suspects were teenagers; Eddie had saved the newspaper because he was looking for ads for cheap New England Patriots tickets, George says.

George is an attorney renowned for high-profile criminal cases and for courtroom theatrics, seeming to revel in controversy. Recently, George's team has tried to broaden the field of suspects, by requesting blood and hair samples from others, including Downing's two sons and her brother-in-law, Artie Ortiz, who for a time lived in the Downing house with Downing's sister, Carol.

At least one other person has tried to steer attention away from Eddie O'Brien: According to a police report, it was the Rev. Henry Jennings who first suggested to State Police that they should investigate Downing's children and former husband because of the conflicts she had had with them over the years.

But Eddie O'Brien's most outspoken defenders are his parents. Tricia O'Brien, fiercely protective, recounts the last two years of her son's life in disbelief. ``I have had doctors sitting at this table, telling me my kid lacks empathy, that he can't feel things,'' she says, referring to experts who examined Eddie to determine if he could be rehabilitated.

``My Ed,'' says Tricia. ``They met him for three hours. I've seen him cry. I know him.''

For the past two years, Eddie O'Brien and his lawyers repeatedly declared his innocence but argued that, even if he were guilty of murder, he should be tried as a juvenile rather than as an adult. The stakes were high: If he were tried and found guilty as a juvenile, he would face a maximum sentence of 20 years, compared with the life sentence he now faces in adult court.

It was assumed for the purpose of this process - a so-called juvenile transfer hearing - that O'Brien was guilty of the crime. A judge listened to testimony from family, friends, psychiatrists, and a priest and tried to decide whether O'Brien might be a temporarily wayward soul or a permanent public menace.

The testimony at the hearings was, at times, bizarre. When a doctor testified that he believed O'Brien had lied when asked how many times he masturbates each week, there were few in the courtroom who weren't glad that their adolescent years were not being examined.

Ultimately, it took two transfer hearings and intervention from the state's highest court to determine where O'Brien would be tried. In the first hearing, Somerville District Court Judge Paul P. Heffernan ruled that O'Brien was a good candidate for rehabilitation and one whose case should remain in juvenile court. That ruling was appealed by Reilly to the Supreme Judicial Court, which ordered a new hearing. The court said Heffernan should have allowed a key prosecution witness to testify that Downing's wounds indicated that her killer was beyond rehabilitation.

The SJC ruling was a victory for the prosecution, although Reilly is fond of saying that there are no winners in this case. The strait-laced district attorney has solemnly pursued putting O'Brien away for life.

At the second transfer hearing, Reilly had another success. Not only was the expert on wounds allowed to testify, but a juvenile court psychologist, who in the first hearing testified that O'Brien stood a good chance of being rehabilitated, had revised his opinion: If O'Brien had killed Downing, in the manner described by the prosecution, he said, it was unlikely that he could be cured. A battery of psychological tests concluded that O'Brien was deeply troubled, that he lived sometimes in a fantasy world he kept hidden from those around him, that no one in that courtroom really knew him. One doctor testified that O'Brien had an inflated view of himself, that he thought he lived above the rules that applied to those around him.

As a result, in April 1997, Lynn District Court Judge Timothy Gailey ruled that O'Brien should be tried as an adult.

Meanwhile, the hearings led to radical changes in the way the state treats juveniles accused of murder. In July 1996, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a new juvenile justice law requiring that all juveniles charged with first- or second-degree murder be tried as adults in Superior Court and face the possibility of a life sentence. The legislation also eliminated, for all juvenile crimes, trial de novo - the process that entitled a juvenile to have a second trial, in front of a jury, if the first trial, in front of a judge, yielded a guilty verdict.

``The fact is, it shouldn't have taken the Eddie O'Brien case to have finally acted on eliminating trial de novo and making a rational juvenile justice policy in this state,'' says Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. ``It shouldn't have taken a crisis to have us focus on the need.''

But that has been the pattern in Massachusetts and around the nation. Juvenile justice laws in the state already had been modified during the 1990s, following several high-profile juvenile murder cases. And, increasingly, courts throughout the country are taking a get-tough approach with teenagers, trying them in adult courts when they are accused of violent crimes or, occasionally, even nonviolent crimes like the possession of drugs.

For years, courts have asked: When is a child worth saving? Under the Massachusetts legislation sparked by the case of Eddie O'Brien, the answer now is: Once a child kills, he loses the right to argue that his young age means he deserves a second chance.

These days, Eddie O'Brien works in the kitchen at the Middlesex County Jail. Big Ed and Tricia visit him often. Twice a month, the family has what is called a contact visit, and his youngest sister, who is now 2 years old and has been told by her parents that she is visiting Eddie at a new apartment, crawls all over him. His parents have offered a $15,000 reward for information about a mugging in Union Square on July 23, 1995, but so far they have had no relevant calls.

Eddie is still polite, just as his teachers and coaches remember him. By all accounts, though, he has become more confident while in custody. In his prison interview, he cracks jokes with ease. When asked if it's true that he wanted to be a police officer, or an FBI agent, he doesn't let the opportunity for sarcasm pass.

``I still do,'' he says, nodding toward Bob Launie, one of his attorneys. ``Or, maybe I'll be a warden, huh, Bob?''

While Eddie O'Brien sits in jail awaiting a decision on his future, the Downing family has tried to move on from the tragedy of two years ago. Their home on Boston Street was sold to a family from El Salvador. The Downing boys, Paul and Ryan, and their sister Erin now live with their father, Paul, and his second wife. The father has encouraged his children to stay away from the courtroom and to get on with their lives. On the day that a judge ruled that O'Brien should be tried as an adult, Ryan Downing went to his senior prom.

Janet Downing's older brother, Stephen Solimene, who has served as the family's spokesman, has arrived early for every court date, following each twist in the case. Their parents, Ruth and Eugene Solimene, were forced from the courtroom on several days by particularly gruesome testimony. Stephen, soft-spoken even when angry, will resume his seat in court again this fall. His wife, Maria, says she often tells him: ``Stephen, Janet is not going to be waiting at the end of the road when this is over.''

And what has happened to the close-knit neighborhood of Prospect Hill in the two years since Janet Downing was slain? Jean McGeary, Downing's friend, who was raised in the neighborhood and moved back to a house next to her mother's when she was divorced, now wants to sell her two-family home.

And, if Eddie O'Brien is convicted, even those residents who stay will probably never completely recover from the murder of a neighbor by a neighbor. ``I think Eddie's arrest was more of a shock to this community than the murder of Janet Downing,'' Rev. Jennings, of St. Joseph's church, said several weeks after the murder. ``I know that sounds horrible to say, but I believe it's true.''

No one wanted to believe that Downing's killer could be the boy next door. Just ask Marco Abreu, who says he saw Eddie O'Brien under the street lights outside Downing's home on the night she was slain. Although now he says that there is no mistaking a kid he had known for years, he first told police he couldn't be entirely sure it was his friend Eddie O'Brien leaping from the bushes. He waited a day. Then he went to his parents and said that, in fact, he was sure and had been reluctant to admit it.

Why? Because, like everyone who ever knew Janet Downing and Eddie O'Brien, Marco Abreu did not want to believe that this could happen.