Photo of Martha CoakleyOn September 20, Martha Coakley, the attorney general of Massachusetts, presented the 14th annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture. In a lecture titled “Becoming Involved with the Great Issues of Our Time,” Coakley discussed her experience with child abuse cases and the need for public service-minded lawyers.

Coakley left private practice in 1986 to join the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney. From 1987 to 1989 she was a special attorney with the Boston Organized Crime Strike Force. In 1991 she was appointed chief of the Middlesex Child Abuse Prosecution Unit, where she focused on cases involving physical and sexual abuse of children.

“I felt that [the Child Abuse Unit] worked every single day to keep kids safe, to hold accountable those who would violate child safety, to make sure that those who were victimized had their day in court,” Coakley said, “but also to make sure that the constitution was working, by respecting the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments.” Coakley detailed the difficulty of child abuse cases—interviews with young and not-yet-competent children,  lack of physical evidence, and the perception that prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing convictions—and the delicate balance between criminal justice, victim protection, prosecutorial discretion, and prevention. “There are few things worse than a false claim of child abuse,” Coakley said. “They were the toughest cases in the world because you were in trouble if you didn’t indict, you were in trouble if you did [indict] and got it wrong.”

In order to more fully develop child abuse cases, Coakley’s team worked to improve their techniques when interviewing children, ensure the safety of victims, change public perception about abuse cases, and further understand the effects of abuse on victims.

Coakley was elected Middlesex district attorney in 1998 and held that office until 2007, when she became Massachusetts attorney general. Her busy stretch in that office has included work with Apple and the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that blind iTunes consumers have full use of the program through screen access software; a settlement with Goldman Sachs that provided $50 million in loan-restructuring for homeowners and a $10 million payment to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and, more recently, a fight against gas distributor National Grid’s proposed rate increase.

“The need for good people—people with integrity, common sense, experience, dedication—in public service has never been greater,” Coakley said. “We need our best and brightest, not just as an abstract principle, but as a commitment that we make to each other about how this democracy is going to work.

Coakley’s call echoed the introduction of former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams '63, who extolled the importance of public service. “Anybody who lives in America or the world today knows this world needs repair, this world needs help,” Abrams said told the largely-student audience. “All of you, as lawyers, intelligent advocates, can bring about important repair.”

Watch the full lecture (56 min):

Posted September 24, 2010