BEVERLY — A lawyer for the man convicted in what is believed to be the second-deadliest fire in Massachusetts history has accused state corrections officials of misrepresenting her client’s true medical condition.
During a hearing on Thursday, lawyer Sharon Sullivan-Puccini called the state’s denial of medical parole for James Carver “a travesty.”
Carver, 57, has been serving 15 concurrent life sentences in the 1984 Elliott Chambers rooming house fire, in which 15 people, including a 9-year-old boy, were killed. Carver was found guilty of 15 counts of second-degree murder in 1989. Prosecutors argued that Carver was angry at a former girlfriend who was dating a resident of the building.
Carver maintains that he was not the person who set fire to a stack of newspapers outside a doorway of the rooming house, at the intersection of Rantoul and Elliott streets, in the early morning hours of July 4, 1984. But multiple appeals and efforts to obtain a new trial have proven unsuccessful.
Last year, Sullivan-Puccini, a new attorney for Carver, filed a motion seeking medical parole for Carver, citing both the potential risk to him if he contracted COVID-19 in prison and his “myriad” of medical conditions, which, she contends, have left him debilitated and reliant on a wheelchair. He has since been vaccinated but, Sullivan-Puccini argues, still weak and vulnerable due to other ailments.
On Thursday, Sullivan-Puccini told a Salem Superior Court judge, “I’m only asking for a fair shot” at medical parole for Carver.
But in denying medical parole, state Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici cited a report of an incident last June at MCI Shirley, in which Carver allegedly fought with officers, that shows he still poses a potential risk to public safety.
Mici concluded that, in part based on that incident, as well as his ability to get in and out of the wheelchair on his own, concerns over his proposed release plan, and because he is not terminally ill, Carver should not be granted medical parole.
Sullivan-Puccini, who wants the ruling to be reconsidered, says video from that incident, which she only obtained after Mici’s initial decision, “totally contradicts” the report that Mici relied on in making her decision. She argues that the video shows Carver weakly reacting to an officer before being quickly overcome and subdued by correctional officers.
“This also borders on misrepresentation by omission,” Sullivan-Puccini told Judge Janice Howe during Thursday’s hearing in Salem Superior Court.
A lawyer for the Department of Correction, Scott McLean, said Mici had what she needed to review the medical parole request, including the proposed release plan, medical documentation, and a risk assessment by the superintendent of the prison, as well as written statements by the Essex District Attorney’s office and relatives of victims.
The June incident was only one factor in the decision, McLean told the judge.
“It is in the purview of the commissioner to determine what is relevant,” said McLean, citing what he argues is the intent of lawmakers to place that responsibility on Mici, with 34 years of experience in corrections, rather than a judge.
“The statute doesn’t say that a petitioner has a say in what the commissioner reviews,” argued McLean.
“I think what this boils down to,” Howe said, “is that the commissioner ... clearly recited in her report and her decision the June 21 report. To me, the essence of what this motion is is ‘what is the best evidence of this incident?’”
“Would it be arbitrary and capricious for the commissioner to rely on the characterization and description of the correctional officer as opposed to a first-hand viewing of the the incident itself?” Howe asked McLean.
McLean said the statute creating medical parole gives Mici the authority to decide what to consider and that she did not need to view the video.
But Howe questioned whether Mici had the “best evidence” of his physical condition without seeing the video.
Sullivan-Puccini argued that she had not — and that was critical to her decision.
Other disciplinary incidents, the lawyer argued, were older and relatively minor, including taking extra milk or being out of place. “She needed something more recent,” Sullivan-Puccini argued. “His risk assessment has him at low, so she needs that.”
Howe said she would take time to consider the arguments before issuing a decision whether to order Mici to reconsider the decision.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.