It's emblematic of Richard J. Dyer's career that more than one
of his legal colleagues say that they met him for the first time
when he was a defendant. The judge who became one of his first and
most crucial advocates was also the first one to put him in jail,
and would do so several times.
Dyer's rap sheet has more than 10 years of felony convictions,
from attempted B&E to grand larceny. One of his clients has
been quoted as citing him as an inspiration, because Dyer turned
his life around after committing offenses worse than the
Dyer's O. Henry-style life story has been told in the national
press through media, including Parade magazine, and a CBS
documentary. He's seeking a judgeship in the District Court,
primarily because of his interest in expanding the Drug Court
within that system. A few years ago, he was "rejected," as he puts
it, in his first bid.
He earned his GED at the Deer Island Correctional Facility, and
subsequently graduated with honors from Boston State College,
completing a four-year program in 2 1/2 years by studying in both
the night and the day programs. The judge who had imposed his last
sentence wrote the recommendation that got him into law school at
the dawn of the 1980s, but all but one school to which he applied
turned him down. That same judge helped him apply for a governor's
pardon from Michael Dukakis in 1983, the year he earned his JD from
Northeastern University School of Law. While studying there, he was
told that a convicted felon would never be allowed to practice. He
persevered anyway. The pardon cleared the way for him to take the
Dyer readily admits that without the governor's pardon, his life
would be very different today. But ultimately, life is what you
make it. Now an attorney with an established practice in Newton,
with six children and one grandchild, Dyer, at 61, looks years
younger and his personality is engaging.
"Rick is very open about who he is and where he came from, and it
gives him a unique way to relate to people in our justice system,"
says Massachusetts Bar Association Chief Legal Counsel Martin W.
Healy, who has gotten to know Dyer professionally. "He's just a
tremendously inspiring member of the bar."
In the words of one of Dyer's colleagues, after a brief encounter,
"You feel like you've known him for a long time."
A major U-turn
Dyer grew up in Brighton with four other siblings. He was the only
one to take a wrong turn, starting with model airplane glue and
graduating to psychedelic drugs and then heroin. To support his
drug habit, he started stealing and selling high-end cars in the
days when the state did not require a certificate of title.
At age 22, sitting in a cell in the then-Charles Street Jail, he
was terrified when he was told he would be going before the parole
board for release. He had recent news from home of a friend's death
and another's receiving a life sentence. He feared he would be
next. But he recognized this fear as nearing the point of no
return. "Out of my greatest despair came my recovery," he says. "My
rehabilitation started … with my desperation, my pain, my fear and
my awareness that my life was unmanageable on the outside."
"The Life" catches up with people. Just ask criminal defense
attorney John J. McGlone III, principal at the Quincy law firm
Giarrusso, Norton, Cooley & McGlone PC. He cites the frequent,
drastic difference between a current mug shot with a driver's
license that's usually four to five years old. Young people, often
old beyond their years, say things like, "Nobody ever suspected
that I would shoot up." Once in the criminal-justice system,
McGlone warns, even clean-cut kids can learn the ropes in 60 to 90
days; that education, he indicates, while efficient, seldom comes
McGlone met Dyer almost two decades ago when they were on opposite
sides of a case and had co-defendants. Today, he says of Dyer, "He
is not going to move a case for the sake of moving a case. With
him, it's 'How do I help this guy?'"
Judge David T. Donnelly of the Brighton District Court notes that
the court system's many moving parts include public safety,
punishment, restoration and hard work. "Everybody has a role, but
no one has total ownership. That's personality driven." Of Dyer, he
says, "He can speak to someone in difficult circumstances in terms
of the criminal justice system and their addiction. He has an
understanding of what that means."
This plays both ways - Dyer can also be tough. "He pushes when he
sees something that needs to be done," says Zygmunt J.B. Plater,
professor of law at Boston College Law School, who recalls Dyer
warning recalcitrant defendants thusly: "I'm your attorney. If you
don't do x, y and z, you're going to rot."
Some of Dyer's clients are the children of former "comrades in
crime," Dyer says. "And the parents … only remember me from when
things weren't so good." But, he says, many call him when addiction
touches them or their families, not so much seeking legal help but
to draw on his personal experiences.
McGlone notes that Dyer has connections that are not readily
apparent. While he doesn't exactly put it this way, it harkens back
to the social system that existed in the days of Edwin O'Connor's
mid-20th century novel about Boston's old-style political system,
The Last Hurrah. Plater shares an anecdote from Dyer's
first year of law school: students were given an actual case file
and told to come back days later with a plan to proceed. Dyer
returned, and announced, "I got him off." It turned out that Dyer
knew the probation officer; he had a discussion to the effect that
if the defendant makes certain promises, would he be set free?
Answer: Yes. "Few of us have the sense of how personal
trustworthiness [plays a role]," says Plater. "What he brings to
the legal system is a call for common sense."
Writing a new chapter
Dyer authored a chapter on Massachusetts law and substance abuse
for the Lexis Nexis Practice Guide to Massachusetts Criminal
Law, 2013 Edition. The chapter, titled "Strategies for
Diversion and Alternative Disposition in Substance Use, Abuse, and
Addiction Cases," is the first writing on the subject to appear in
Lexis Nexis, and Dyer and other attorneys say it's long overdue,
considering that 80 percent of the cases that appear before the
Brighton District Court have as root causes drug and/or alcohol
Plater says Dyer brings a fresh approach to what the legal system
needs to be doing. "He understands the system because he
understands people," Plater says. "He cuts through the bull. …
Judges recognize that he's an attorney [with an understanding] of
how the law has to operate to achieve what the law is supposed to
achieve. … He knows how to ask for legal analysis. Growing up in
the streets of Boston, he didn't get a lot of grounding in
constitutional law, but he's open to it and knows how to ask about
Making the leap
So, what kind of a judge would Dyer be? Would it be possible for
him to use his innate personal skills as effectively on the bench
as on the bar? Many colleagues seem to think so.
Judge Donnelly says, "We have absolutely no control over who comes
before us and how they came before us. But we can affect how they
leave." Long-term gains result in a person becoming productive
rather than a burden to society.
Attorney John Palmer remembers Dyer from the time Dyer worked for
him right out of law school. They first met in a prisoners' rights
case. "He always had special insights and concern about people who
suffer from addictions. He's empathetic but tough. He knows all the
games [people play]."
"He is a catalyst for the investment of public resources," says
Plater, due to Dyer's knowledge of which rehabilitation programs
work and which don't - often from direct experience. "He sees
things that need correction and could be corrected, but outside the
Gary Greenberg, former co-managing shareholder at Greenberg
Traurig LLP, concurs: "Where he shines is in understanding what
works and what doesn't in terms of recovery. … He is really an
extraordinary individual, committed to using the legal system to
help those in recovery, but also realizing the limits of the legal
system." He adds, "He would make a great judge. He knows the law,
he knows how to deal with recovery. If someone like Rick Dyer can
wear a robe, it resonates through the entire [community]."
Luke Goldworm at the Suffolk County District Attorney's office
cites at least a dozen defendants who left repeat performances and
are now in recovery as the result of Dyer's work. "He sees when
people are serious about recovery," he says. "He's the first guy to
call it like it is," Goldworm says. "Not just in criminal cases,
but his whole life."
Last, but far from least, is Dyer's son Eric. At 23, he's now in
his first year at law school. He has also shared some of his
father's struggles with addiction, and has been sober for two
years. Of his father, Eric says, "He wore who he was right on his
sleeve." Father and son cite unconditional love as a source of
strength. Rick Dyer says his mother unrelentingly showed up in
court for his appearances, and today he carries a talisman that
represents her spirit. "His mother said that if he had no hope, he
could borrow some of hers," Eric says. "Dad said that too. … He
looked at the cards he was dealt and played it the best way he
could. He is able to use [recovery] not as a weakness or a disease,
but something that gives him strength."