Rick Dyer’s long journey has gone from jail to the bar. Now he seeks the bench.

Issue October 2013 By Christina P. O’Neill

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 client's.

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 bar exam.

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 to good.

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 abuse.

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 it."

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 normal system."

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."