Without a body, how the Brian Walshe murder trial could play out
There’s one piece of evidence that prosecutors can’t use in their case against Brian Walshe for the murder of his wife, Ana Walshe: her body.
But trying a murder case without a body has been a high-profile highlight of three successive Norfolk County district attorneys. The previous cases resulted in, first, a plea deal admitting manslaughter and, second, a murder conviction.
“I see what Mike Morrissey has done, it is clear that the effort that went into this case was substantial,” William Delahunt told the Herald of how Michael Morrissey, the current Norfolk DA, has handled the early stages of the Walshe case. “He appears to be doing the kind of work that he needs to be doing.”
Delahunt, a former U.S. congressman, served as Norfolk DA for 22 years, from 1975 to 1997 — the Superior Court in Dedham was renamed in his honor in October — and the case dubbed “Missing Beauty” by the Herald fell right in the middle of that tenure.
That was the slaying of Robin Benedict in 1983 by obsessed Tufts University anatomy professor William Douglas, for which he would cop to manslaughter just as the jury was seated in his murder trial.
Then came the second-degree murder conviction, the first in Massachusetts without a body, of Joseph Romano in 2002 for beating his wife, Katherine, to death and then dismembering her with a borrowed power saw.
Those cases are from an earlier age, and “forensics has evolved so much” in the intervening years that DNA sourced from materials, “maybe it comes from an internal organ or some tissue” that couldn’t have been present on items from some external cut, “could become a strong proxy for not having an actual body,” said Christopher Dearborn, a clinical law professor at Suffolk University Law School.
In the case of Ana Walshe, investigators say Brian Walshe searched on Google starting in the early morning hours of Jan. 1 — the morning Ana disappeared — for ways to dispose of a body and went to Home Depot the next day to buy $450 worth of cleaning supplies.
Some of those supplies — including a Tyvek-style paper suit spattered with blood, gloves, a hacksaw, a hatchet and cutting shears — were later found in trash from a dumpster in Swampscott, as were personal items of Ana’s, including her boots and necklace and even a COVID-19 vaccination card in her name.
“This is a situation where circumstantial evidence and direct evidence, the line between them gets blurred a little bit,” Dearborn said. “The classic direct evidence is an eye witness or a confession, but we don’t have an eye witness or a confession.”
Dearborn’s colleague at Suffolk Law, Rosanna Cavallaro, said that the prosecution’s argument here is that all these circumstantial details are “not just pieces of evidence in a vacuum … the only thing that they don’t have is a body.”
“The prosecutor’s goal, evidence-wise, is to make the circumstantial evidence so clear that it can only support one conclusion,” she said. “There’s no other way to understand these Google searches and this visit to purchase cleaning supplies.”
Then there is the aspect of motive. On Dec. 27, Brian Walshe allegedly searched for “What’s the best state to divorce for a man?” And then the query, among the body disposal searches, for “How long for someone to be missing to inherit?”
At Brian Walshe’s arraignment in Quincy District Court on Wednesday, his defense attorney Tracy Miner had little to say, and the defendant himself said only “I do” when asked if he understood the charges against him. But that’s not unusual for the first hearing in a first-degree murder case, Dearborn said, where the majority of such cases in Massachusetts are held without bail.
“There are definitely different schools of thought and also very compelling reasons to say very little at that moment in time, especially in the case that’s getting a lot of media attention,” he said. “The strategy might have been to get in and out as fast as possible and regroup.”
The District Court does not have final jurisdiction over the case, he added, and it will likely take a few years to get to trial. There are three roads to bumping the case up to the Superior Court: a probable cause hearing, which is a rarity, followed by the requirement of an indictment by a grand jury in first-degree murder cases, or straight to the grand jury, followed by an indictment, which Dearborn said is virtually the exclusive path.
Then comes motions, litigation and investigations on both sides. During this time, the defense will likely challenge every search warrant and the admissibility of other evidence before trial.
But what evidence remains or is developed during further investigation, in the absence of a body and no real way of knowing exactly what happened, the defense can string together into their own compelling story of what happened.
“The defense has the notion of reasonable doubt,” Cavallaro said. “That is to say that without a body, we’re only guessing and that as long as we’re making guesses, we can make other guesses.”
If the defense goes the route of admitting that Brian Walshe killed Ana Walshe that morning, they could argue that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s first-degree, premeditated murder.
“She could have died in a number of ways that aren’t homicide but could be manslaughter” or even second-degree murder, Cavallaro said. “Everything that happened after could be the behavior of a panic-stricken person … totally unprepared to deal with the consequences of his actions”
The searches came about after Ana Walshe was allegedly murdered, which could be argued that the killing happened suddenly and in an unplanned way, “A heat of passion.”
Defense could also ask for a change of venue or a delay in proceedings to make media attention to the case less red-hot.
“But I do want to get one caution out there, which is one of the problems with high-profile cases that receive significant media coverage is that it gets a lot of pre-judgment,” Dearborn said. “I would really urge everyone to take a page from Walt Whitman and be curious but not be judgmental.”
Readers were captivated by the story of Robin Benedict, the “Missing Beauty” who worked Boston’s Combat Zone red-light district under the name “Nadine,” who vanished from professor Douglas’ home on March 5, 1983. Her body was never found.
Soon, his interest “turned into an obsession,” prosecutor John Kivlan said then. A State Police report said he would call her several times a day, write love letters and take her to plays and concerts — all on the clock, and on the dime of tens of thousands of misused university grants, for which he was fired.
Benedict, a graphic artist with a love of oil painting had big plans, she had told another John. She had recently bought her own house in Malden and had planned to work the streets for only a couple years to build up a nest egg, then invest and retire.
Those dreams came to a violent end on March 5, 1983, when Douglas, then 41, lured her to his Sharon home and bludgeoned her to death with a sledgehammer and then stashed her body in a dumpster at a Providence mall. She was only 21 years old.
Douglas pled down to manslaughter on April 27, 1984.
Delahunt said Friday that his first assistant district attorney and prosecutor of the case John Kivlan — who died on Jan. 11 of this year at 77 — was also the unusual case’s “architect,” whose strategy, Delahunt said, was, “to use the old phrase, not to leave a stone unturned.”
He added that what Kivlan’s prosecution “established is that it is feasible to try a case and prosecute a case without a body.”
Katherine Romano vanished after leaving her work on Boston’s Big Dig on Sept. 27, 1998, under the tenure of Norfolk DA William Keating.
Her murder at the hands of her husband, Joseph Romano, who would then dismember her body with a borrowed saw would be the first murder conviction in Massachusetts without a body.
The jury didn’t buy Joseph Romano’s defense, that his wife was killed by drug dealers to whom she owed money, especially after the powerful evidence that bits of his wife’s bone, muscle and other tissue were found on the saw he borrowed from a neighbor and the blood found in the couple’s home.