Massachusetts' highest court has seen a few high-profile cases recently. WGBH legal analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daniel Medwed breaks down the recently concluded trial of New England Compounding Center chief Barry Cadden and a major decision by our Supreme Judicial Court about property tax exemptions for places of worship.
Barry Cadden NECC case
Last week, a jury rendered its verdict in the case against Barry Cadden, the head of the compounding pharmacy whose contaminated products led to a fatal meningitis outbreak back in 2012. The jury acquitted him of 25 counts of second-degree murder but convicted him on some of the lesser charges.
Medwed says this verdict isn’t surprising for two reasons.
First, the number of people involved and the idiosyncrasies of the compounding industry make this a complicated case. It's not uncommon, according to Medwed, for a jury to embrace a so-called “compromise” verdict — acquit on the top counts and convict on the lesser ones.
Second, a homicide charge would be a bit of a reach despite Cadden's neglect to adhere to industry hygiene standards, Medwed says. For a murder charge to stick, prosecutors usually must prove a defendant either intended a particular act to result in death or at least was extremely reckless in disregarding a substantial risk of death. “Here, because a number of people were involved in the actual production and distribution of the contaminated batch of drugs — including a supervisory pharmacist who ran the rooms where the drugs were made — I imagine it was hard to convince the jury that Cadden had the required mental state that he essentially knew taking these shortcuts could cause the production of contaminated vials that could lead to mass fatalities,” Medwed explains.
What does this verdict mean in terms of his prison sentence? Will he just get a slap on the wrist?
Medwed says that's not likely. Cadden was convicted of more than fifty counts of mail fraud, and each of those convictions carries a potential 20-year sentence. It’s theoretically possible that the judge could make those sentences run consecutively to each other. What remains unknown is the number of victims and their families who plan to make statements seeking a harsh sentence for Cadden. “If I had to guess, there’s an excellent chance he — at age 50 — could effectively spend the rest of his life behind bars,” Medwed says. The sentencing phase of the trial will take begin June 21st.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette Case
The SJC recently issued a decision in a case from 2013 when assessors in Attleboro sought to tax a large portion of the two hundred acre National Shrine of Our Lady La Salette. The city contended that the grounds — which include a welcome center, maintenance facility, land leased out for use as a wildlife sanctuary and a home for battered women — were being used for non-religious purposes. The shrine fought back on the grounds of the state’s religious exemption. The SJC ultimately came to what Medwed considers a split decision, ruling that Attleboro could not tax the welcome center and the maintenance facility but upheld the choice to tax the wildlife sanctuary and the battered women’s home.
What are the implications of this case for religious institutions, which have been keeping a close eye on this case for years, across Massachusetts?
On one hand, says Medwed, some religious leaders have heralded the decision as a victory for religious freedom and are reminded that secular tax authorities have no jurisdiction to designate portions of property for religious purposes. However, Attleboro could tax a portion of the property that was leased out for use as a wildlife sanctuary and safe house, suggesting that the religious exemption is not entirely bulletproof.
It's unclear whether cash-strapped cities and towns might follow Attleboro’s lead and try to tax portions of property belonging to religious institutions, especially those that the organization leases out to other entities. Medwed adds that those portions could be exempt under a different provision of our law – for charitable enterprises – but not under religious exemption.