MIDDLESEX - Despite being championed by the likes of former Mass. Governor Paul Cellucci, U.S. Senator Scott Brown, and a number of prominent and respected state prosecutors, Melissa's Law had languished in legislative limbo for a dozen years back in 2011.
Named for Melissa Gosule, a 27-year-old Boston resident who was raped and murdered in 1999 by a habitual felon, the criminal sentencing reform bill had been introduced for 11 straight legislative session years without being taken up for a vote on Beacon Hill.
So when State Rep. James Dwyer (D-Woburn) stepped before his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee in March of 2011 to advocate for the legislation, also known as the state's three-strikes law for habitual violent criminals, the then second-term legislator knew that sentiment from Beacon Hill's Democratic leadership hadn't changed.
But with his hometown reeling from the murder of veteran Police Patrolman John "Jack" Maguire, who was months earlier shot and killed by a recently paroled career-criminal during a botched jewelry heist, Dwyer refused to relent.
"Things like this do not happen in Woburn, but what we have all come to realize in the most difficult of ways is that this can happen anywhere, especially if the circumstances are those which we face today," he testified at the hearing.
"It is our responsibility to give voices to the many victims and their families across our Commonwealth that have endured what the Maguire and Gosule families have gone through. It is our responsibility to change the system as we know it, especially since it has failed us," he continued. "If we do not change, then we are failing ourselves and more importantly, failing those that entrusted us with the responsibility to ensure the safety of the public.
Nearly five months later, during a quiet ceremony from which Dwyer and the Maguire family were noticeably absent, former Governor Deval Patrick, who had days earlier threatened to veto the legislation, inked Melissa's Bill into law.
After attending that signing ceremony in Aug. of 2011, Les Gosule, the grieving father who had for 13 years fought to pass the legislation bearing his slain daughter's name — praised the Maguire family and Dwyer for their key support.
"Thanks to the chief sponsors, Sen. Bruce Tarr, Rep. Jim Dwyer, and former Sen. Steve Baddour who did incredible work to craft and pass this law," Gosule commented at the time. "Thanks to the state's law enforcement community and organizations for their support, especially members of the Woburn PD and Chuck Maguire, brother of Officer Jack Maguire. This victory just goes to show that it's still possible for the good guys to win, and that good things can still come out of Beacon Hill!"
Just shy of six years after emerging victorious in the fight to pass Melissa's Law, Dwyer, recuperating from knee surgery at his Woburn home, spoke with Middlesex East after announcing he will not be seeking a sixth-term in office as state representative of the 30th Middlesex District.
According to the married father-of-two, who is leaving politics to spend more time with his family, his crusade for Melissa's Bill marks one of his most bittersweet moments in office, as it was the murder of his personal friend that provided the impetus for breaking the legislative stalemate.
He and his hometown of Woburn still struggle with that loss.
In fact, a few weeks before Dwyer announced he would not seek re-election, crowds of citizens and friends of Maguire, who was just six months away from retirement when he was killed on Dec. 26, 2010, gathered in droves by the front of the Kohl's Department store on Washington Street where the Wilmington resident died.
The veteran patrolman, a 34-year veteran of the force, heroically squeezed off two rounds from his service weapon after being mortally wounded in a shootout with career criminal Domenic Cinelli at the robbery scene. Cinelli, who was attempting to escape to a getaway car in a residential neighborhood at the time of the confrontation, was out on parole despite having been thrice-convicted to life sentences for violent crimes, including a 1985 robbery in Boston in which a security guard was shot.
"Our whole community was traumatized, when Jack was murdered," he recalled. "I knew Jack personally. I worked with his brother as a probation officer. In Woburn, everybody knows everybody."
"That was a huge deal [for me, when that passed]. It wasn't a unanimous vote, but it was pretty close. It was a proud day for me," added Dwyer, referencing the House's 139-to-14 vote in favor of Melissa's Law.
Dwyer, who spent most of his second-term in the state Legislature fighting for parole board and criminal sentencing reform, would ultimately be stripped of his Judiciary Committee assignment by Beacon Hill's leadership, a move largely seen as retaliation for his decision to break ranks. And though he still smarts at Patrick's alleged snub of the Maguire family by not inviting relatives to the signing ceremony, he's grateful the state's leaders ultimately agreed to do the right thing.
Besides fighting for parole reform, Dwyer over the course of his career had a number of other legislative victories, including the passage of ethics reform and the securing of much-needed funding for his constituents in Reading and Woburn.
But his actions during the battle over Melissa's Bill perhaps best illustrate the former Woburn alderman's overarching political philosophy. To sum up his sentiments: Always be willing to compromise on politics, but never compromise your integrity by failing to do what's undeniably right.
"I promised myself I'd always serve with my honesty, integrity and character intact. When I was elected, the reputation of the state's politicians was at its lowest level. I wanted to restore faith in community service and the belief that there are some good politicians out there," said Dwyer, referencing the era when former House Speak Thomas Finneran, State Senator Diane Wilkinson, and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner were indicted.
According to Dwyer, he makes a distinction between standing up for his principles, like he did in regards to criminal sentencing reform, and the divisive and uncompromising political atmosphere that has permeated the national political scene as of late.
In his estimation, the type of self-destructive governance, in which political opponents scorn each other with demonizing rhetoric, has no place at the State House, or anywhere else in the country.
"Nowadays, there's so much animosity, and if you disagree with someone, they hate you. It shouldn't be that way. You should be trying to bring out the best in people through understanding where people are coming from," said Dwyer.
"The perfect example would be [former Mass. Congressman and Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill and [President] Ronald Reagan. They were polar opposites, but they didn't take their disagreements with each other as a personal slight. We need to get back to civility," he continued.
A life of service
Though many may consider Dwyer a tough-on-crime advocate, a label he earned throughout his legislative career as he stumped for parole and sentencing reform, the Woburn grandfather is in fact a huge believer in second chances.
For that reason, Dwyer has been a big proponent of providing additional support to address the state's opioid epidemic.
Seeing local education as a sure way to overcome socioeconomic adversity, the legislator has also constantly railed against unfunded educational mandates and tried to steer additional financial supports towards local schools.
"My whole life has been that way. I have a passion for helping others in need. If I'm in a position to make someone's life better, I'm going to do it," he said.
Prior to his political life, Dwyer served for 34 years in the Middlesex Juvenile Court system as a probation officer. It was a career, which though challenging and often heartbreaking, that permanently changed his outlook on life and embedded his commitment to public service.
During his decades at Middlesex County courthouses, Dwyer refused to allow the slow-to-change system to sour his aspirations of turning around troubled teens lives.
By the end of his tenure, he was credited with originating the Lowell House Drug & Alcohol Juvenile Diversion Education Program, and he also collaborated with juvenile prosecutors to create the Woburn District’s Court’s Clean Start Program for first-time offenders.
"I went in there every day and did the best I could to alleviate people's pain. I saw so many parents walk through that door with so much hurt on their faces. I knew they were thinking, 'How did I get here?''" recalled Dwyer.
"But 95 percent of kids who walk through juvenile court, we never see them again. And when you're in the position to help somebody, you just do it. I was just lucky enough to be in that position…I'm proud to say a lot of these parents and kids keep in touch with me still. And when they say, 'Hey, I just had my first kid,' that's my reward."