A number of criminal cases don’t always seem cut and dry, and one case that resulted in serious, life-altering injuries on Pier 4 in the Navy Yard in April 2017 is just one of those cases, at least according to DA Rachael Rollins’s office, the defendant’s attorney in the case and witness statements.
The case, though it garnered little attention over the last few years, was prominently reported in a Boston Globe piece this month reviewing cases that had been resolved under DA Rollins’s new prosecution policies. Those policies have come into question, and have been highly scrutinized since Rollins was elected last November – with the Charlestown case being used as a prominent example by many.
Reaction to the Globe story – which involved more than just the Charlestown case – has been mixed, with a lot of Rollins’s critics mounting even more concern for her policies, saying that she is too lenient on minor – and even serious – crimes. Rollins and her supporters have said the analyses of her early work isn’t fair, and that many times they are trying to bring a resolution to difficult cases. They say it doesn’t paint a full picture of each of the messy circumstances that they have tried to resolve in their first six month – many of which have mental health and drug issued thrown prominently into the mix.
That is exactly what the case was in Charlestown, where an everyday incident turned into a major confrontation that left the victim with traumatic head injuries that she will deal with the rest of her life. Despite those serious injuries, the criticism comes in the fact that DA Rollins’s office was willing to reduce the felony charge down to a misdemeanor – and it was something that former DA Dan Conley’s office was not willing to do, as they opted to take it to trial instead of cutting the deal.
“It was just one of these really unfortunate situations where two people wish they had never met each other,” said Attorney Todd Pomerleau, who represented defendant Rusbel Santana Ruiz, a life-long Charlestown resident. “He has mental health issues and was off his meds. He felt she was recording him. He perceived her to be about to attack him. He turned to walk away from her and witnesses saw her throw coffee on him. The witness accounts weren’t that consistent. That’s why it was on for trial. My client thought he was defending himself from a potential attack. She thought he attacked her. It was really going to be a self-defense case through the prism of a person with mental health issues.”
According to the Globe report and to DA Rollins’s office, the victim was very much against her making a plea deal with Santana-Ruiz – even begging her in a note at the last minute not to do so. Rollins told the Patriot-Bridge that they sought to hold Santana-Ruiz accountable, recognize the serious injuries suffered by the victim, but also take into account the history of mental illness that played a role in what happened.
“As this case illustrates, prosecutors are often tasked with handling complex criminal cases that have no easy answers,” said Rollins. “Here, the interests of justice and public safety are best served by reaching a disposition that takes into account the extent of the victim’s injuries, as well as the defendant’s lack of prior or subsequent offenses, and the role that mental illness played in his actions. The sentence secured by this Office ensures that the defendant be held accountable, the victim receives restitution, the court closely monitor the defendant for three years, and that he continues receiving necessary treatment. He faces a lengthy jail sentence if he doesn’t comply with the terms of his probation.”
The Police Report of the incident, which took place on the afternoon of April 20, 2017, has several witness accounts – many of them conflicting one another. What is clear is that Santana-Ruiz and his brother were smoking marijuana in the ferry passenger kiosk on Pier 4 when the victim was walking her dog and came into contact with them. The victim seemed to be videotaping something in the area, and was pointing her phone towards the two brothers. Santana-Ruiz felt that she was taping them, and he confronted her and asked her to stop.
Words were exchanged, and Santana-Ruiz turned to walk away.
That’s when the victim supposedly threw coffee on his back.
He turned back around and there was a struggle, which somehow involved the dog leash and the dog.
Both fell to the ground, with the victim hitting her head on the pavement and curbing – suffering a fractured skull, hearing loss and severe head injuries that are still a factor in her life.
Some witnesses seem to indicate Santana-Ruiz grabbed the victim’s purse after she threw coffee on him, with them both accidentally falling to the ground.
Other witnesses describe Santana-Ruiz smacking the coffee cup before turning around, the victim throwing coffee on him, and then him grabbing the dog leash and using it to “fling” the victim to the ground – with him falling on top of her.
Another witness indicates the victim was the first to approach the two men with her phone.
Another describes Santana-Ruiz being the first to approach her.
Construction workers on the scene indicated the two brothers tried to flee, but that they held them there.
Another witness said the two brothers stuck around and tried to help the victim after she fell and became seriously injured and unconscious.
Both brothers were there when police arrived sitting on a bench.
Pomerleau said the case wound its way through court for more than a year, with Judge Lyons in Boston Municipal Court ordering a mental health evaluation at one point. After that evaluation, she made it known that she was not going to sentence Santana-Ruiz to prison. Pomerleau said he had asked for a continuance without a finding, which would have meant not pleading guilty to the crime, as his client was a first-time offender with serious mental health challenges.
Under DA Conley, the prosecutor was not willing to ratchet down the felony charge to a misdemeanor, but DA Rollins’s office was more willing to find a resolution that didn’t result in a trial, he said.
“All things considered, we felt like it resolved in a good way,” said Pomerleau. “There was a little more willingness (by Rollins’s office) to listen to his side of the story. Again, the deal he got wasn’t the greatest thing. I’m not proud of it. Most first-time offenders get a continuance without a finding. It’s just her injuries were that bad. We get it…She has head injuries and we understand she has a lot to deal with and it sounds like she’ll deal with that for the rest of her life…
“For a district level court case, the punishment was significant that he got,” he continued. “There was just a willingness from her office, consideration of his mental health and him not wanting to cause these injuries to her. I think there was just an understanding of the context of where he was coming from. There was also a lot of concern for the victim. They wanted to make sure he paid restitution and stayed away from her. The judge required a GPS monitor on him during probation. He had a lot of conditions and at the end of the day, he was convicted of a crime. But it wasn’t a felony.”
The victim was not contacted for this story, as is customary for the media in a criminal case due to the fact that the victim is not identified in any documents. In most instances, the prosecutor and district attorney speak for the victim – as is the case in this report.
The deal that was agreed to right before the April 2019 trial was to begin was a knock down of the felony assault charge to a misdemeanor assault and battery charge. In addition, the DA’s office required that Santana-Ruiz pay restitution, that he wear a GPS bracelet while on probation and that he continue with a GED program.
In May, he did graduate from the Hi-Set program at the Charlestown Resource Center, and Pomerleau said he has tried to move on with his life.
The victim, Rollins said, was briefed on the circumstances and has resources available from the DA’s office – though the victim apparently did not support the agreement by any means.
“The victim in this case suffered injuries that no outcome in criminal court can undo,” said Rollins. “A clinical social worker who leads my Victim Witness Assistance Program met with the victim prior to the plea, and my Office continues to be available as a resource to the victim and her family.”
Said Pomerleau, “It’s a minute or two of two people’s lives that changed their lives forever. They both wish they had never been in that situation. My client was really bothered by it over and over again…My client really just wanted to move on from the case and get a resolution.”
More than anything, both DA Rollins and Pomerleau indicated this case – and perhaps others cited by the Globe in its report – were indications of just how difficult cases are when there are unclear witness testimonies, mental health issues and serious injuries. Rather than leniency, they said this case was more about resolution.