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Obsessed Teen Killer or Wrongfully Convicted?

It was the 23rd of July, 1995, and Janet Downing had just pulled into the drive of her Somerville, Massachusetts, home when her son, Ryan, and his best friend and neighbor, 15-year-old Edward O’Brien Jr., rushed to the vehicle to carry the grocery bags inside. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches and weighing 260 pounds, Edward was described by the locals as a gentle giant. He was a former altar boy that loved sports.

It started out as a typical Sunday. It was a scorching hot summer’s afternoon and Janet had done the grocery shopping and stopped to chat to her neighbor. They spoke of the shock of the recent unsolved murder of 17-year-old Deanna Cremin.

Little did they know that in just several hours, another murder would take place in their city.

Janet decided to take a nap after putting the groceries away. Ryan and Edward had planned on going to the local swimming pool that afternoon. “Why is your mother sleeping?” Edward inquired as he stood staring at Janet. Ryan shrugged and said “Let’s go swimming.” Edward decided against going swimming and the duo went their separate ways.

Some peculiar occurrences had been happening in Janet’s home over the past several months. Items appeared and then disappeared including her favorite Christmas decorations and her daughter’s house keys. Someone put perfume in her coffee, put windshield wiper fluid in her car and left a bag of clothing in her closet.1

It wouldn’t be until 10PM later on that night that Ryan came home from swimming and hanging out with his friends. He was met by an unforgettable scene.

At some point between Ryan leaving the house and returning, somebody had entered their family home and brutally murdered his mother. Janet had been slashed and stabbed over 90 times. Blood was spattered all across the room and across the family photographs.

Ryan ran across the street to Edward’s home and told his parents to call the police. Edward O’Brien Sr. ran to the Downing family home after calling the police, assuming that some kind of accident had taken place. He realized straight away that he was in the middle of a gruesome crime scene and that this certainly was no accident.

Who could do such a thing, he wondered? Within days, however, his own son would be charged with the murder.

As police were rushing to the crime scene, Edward Jr. walked to the store where he worked part-time. He told the manager that he had been mugged and slashed with a knife by muggers who he said were African American or Hispanic. He was reluctant to call the police but the manager persuaded him. His hand was sliced up pretty severely and he had fresh scratches and blood on his legs.

When police arrived to take Edward’s statement in regards to the so-called mugging, they became immediately suspicious. The area Edward claimed he had been mugged was a highly-trafficked area yet nobody saw a thing. They became even more suspicious when Edward recited his address.

Three friends of Edward and Ryan came forward to recollect that they had went to Ryan’s house that night but received no answer at the door. They stated that they heard loud noises coming from the backyard. When they went to investigate, they found Edward crouching in the bushes. They said he glanced and smiled at them before calmly walking away without saying a word.

According to investigators, they found Edward’s fingerprints in blood on the front door as well as on a wooden post in the cellar. In addition, a knife hilt found in Janet’s home matched a knife owned by Edward that they later found in the trash.

When Edward was arrested and charged with Janet’s murder, he was unnaturally cool. “There was absolutely nothing coming out of him. Nothing! No fear. No screaming ‘I didn’t do this!’” Nothing in any way that resembled what you might expect out of a 15-year-old kid who’s being charged with cutting up his best friend’s mother, His eyes were black… nothing there. It made my blood run cold.” recalled Middlesex County District Attorney Tom Reilly.2

While Edward initially claimed that he hadn’t been in the Dowling home on the night of the murder, when presented with the evidence that placed him at the scene, he changed his story. He then claimed that he had encountered a masked man over the body of Janet and that the man threatened to kill him if he told anybody about what he had seen.

Edward was tried as an adult due to the horrific nature of the crime and an ambitious District Attorney, Thomas Reilly. During his trial, it was theorised that Edward killed Janet because he had developed a sexual obsession with her. According to Reilly, Edward used a telescope to watch Janet undress from across the street. He also asserted that he was fascinated with violence.3

Edward denied to testify at trial.

Edward O’Brien Jr. was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The jury had deliberated for eight hours before deciding that Edward used “extreme cruelty and atrocity” when he killed Janet. As the sentence was read aloud, his father gasped “oh my god,” but Edward showed no emotion. As he was led from the courtroom, his father shouted: “We know you’re innocent! We love you!”4

According to Edward’s family, Janet’s brother-in-law, Artie Ortiz, was the real killer. “She was afraid of Artie Ortiz. He murdered her!” shouted Edward’s mother, Tricia, following the verdict. “You’re a liar. You’re a liar,” screamed Janet’s daughter, Keri Ann Downing.

Ortiz and his wife had lived with Janet. However, four months before her murder, Janet kicked them out after she discovered that Ortiz had been dealing drugs out of the home. Apparently, he refused to return his keys.

Ortiz was never even considered a suspect in Janet’s murder. According to Middlesex County District Attorney Thomas Reilly, there was never any evidence pointing towards him being guilty but a profusion pointing towards Edward. “It’s a terrible injustice that has been done by even bringing in a man who is totally innocent into this case, by injecting his name into this case,” he said.

Tricia told people that Edward was a scapegoat. She contended that Ortiz’s cab was towed from their street on the night of the murder with a trail of blood beside it. However, police stated that the blood was Edward’s and the cab was towed because Ortiz lost his keys in the confusion of the murder. “Make no sense about it, it was the evidence that convicted Edward O’Brien,” said Reilly.5

In the book, The Politics of Murder, Margo Nash, a trial attorney assigned by the court to be Edward’s guardian, highlighted some of the evidence which she claimed pointed towards Edward being innocent and Ortiz guilty.

The attack was so vicious that there was blood across the stairs and walls, pooling at the floor. However, Edward had no blood on him. The prosecutor decided against identifying the DNA under Janet’s fingernails as well as other DNA and fingerprints at the scene. Gina Mahoney, a neighbor, had seen Ortiz entering Janet’s home when she was out several times in the past. Furthermore, before her murder, Janet had expressed her fears about Ortiz.

When Mahoney asked to speak to investigators, they declined her attempts to be interviewed. They also refused to speak to Virginia Reckley, who had apparently heard a commotion at a point during the short time window when the murder could have taken place but when witnesses had established that Edward was elsewhere.6

While the evidence against Edward may have seen compelling at the time, the crime scene had not been adequately secured for several hours and while more is known about forensic science nowadays, that may have raised reasonable doubts in a jury’s mind.7

In 2013, a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that juveniles convicted of murder serving a mandatory life sentence should have a chance at parole, meaning Edward’s case could go up for review. However, to be eligible for parole, Edward would have to confess to the crime. Since he professes his innocence, that is something he is not willing to do.

Footnotes:

  1. Boston Herald, 27 July, 1995 – “The Boy Next Door Victim Only Saw The Good in People”
  2. Boston Herald, 2 October, 1992 – “Eddie’s Only Emotion: Indifference”
  3. Boston Herald, 19 October, 2000 – “SJC Nixes New Trial for Somerville Killer of Friend’s Mother”
  4. Boston Herald, 2 October, 1997 – “Emotions Explode as Teen Killer Convicted”
  5. Boston Herald, 2 October, 1997 – “Enraged O’Briens Charge Downing Kin Did Killing”
  6. The Somerville Times, 27 January, 2017 – “The Politics of Murder”
  7. Somverville Journal, 25 October, 2007 – “A Haunting Somerville Story”
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