Guest blogger Rita Muse ’15 comes from a line of BC Law graduates. Her grandmother, Judge Mary Beatty Muse, graduated in 1950, her aunt, Patricia Muse, in 1990, and her cousin, Julie Muse-Fisher, in 2005. Her uncle, Christopher Muse, though not a BC Law grad, has been a longtime adjunct professor at the Law School. He and Rita’s grandfather, Robert Muse were instrumental in the release of the wrongly convicted Bobby Joe Leaster. Their engagement with Leaster in the 1980s had a lasting impact on the Muse family, including on Rita, who, as a law student, helped to free another innocent man.
Bobby Joe Leaster: A Remembrance
By Rita Miuse ’15
When Bobby Joe Leaster spoke to BC Law students and faculties, his story was the same but his message never got old; he was wrongfully convicted of murder and unjustly imprisoned for almost 16 years, but he dealt with injustice in his own profoundly special way. This past April 26, one of BC Law’s favorite guests and a beloved citizen of Boston, passed away from the severe burns he suffered in a home fire three weeks earlier.
This is my remembrance of the person who motivated me as a student, inspired me as a lawyer, and became a friend of my family, two of whom, my grandfather Robert Muse and my uncle Christopher Muse, a longtime adjunct professor at BC Law, helped to free Bobby Joe.
Students gathered in Stuart 315 on November 7, 2013, where I, with the Criminal Justice Law Project, hosted Bobby Joe Leaster as our featured speaker. As the students settled into their seats, all eyes and ears were on the formidable force at the center of the room.
Bobby Joe Leaster was born January 8, 1950 in Reform Alabama, where Jim Crow ruled, and when segregation was still a way of life. As a young black man, he decided to forego his basketball scholarship to Jackson State College in Mississippi and travel north to Boston for social and legal freedom. While the city may not have been decorated with “whites only” signs, Boston was not free from racism. Here, at barely 21 years of age, Bobby Joe found himself charged with a murder and armed robbery he had nothing to do with.
Levi Whiteside was killed September 27, 1970, during a holdup at his variety store in Dorchester. When police began searching for the suspect, Bobby Joe was standing miles away on a South End street wearing clothes of similar color to the actual perpetrator’s. He was arrested and taken to Boston City Hospital in handcuffs, where the deceased victim’s wife identified him. Though Bobby Joe was at home with his girlfriend at the actual time of the shooting, she lied to police, fearing harassment for being a white woman living with an African American man. Despite weak identifications and no physical evidence tying Bobby Joe to the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to state prison for the rest of his young life. That is where he stayed for over 15 years.
Six years into his sentence, Robert Muse and Christopher Muse (later Judge Muse) took up his case. The father and son pair quickly became convinced of Bobby Joe’s innocence, and for nine years the three men fought for a new trial in the state and federal appellate and trial courts. In the summer of 1986, Mark Johnson, a young man who had witnessed the murder as a 13-year-old neighborhood kid, saw the arrest photograph of Bobby Joe in a recent magazine article, and convincingly testified Bobby Joe was the wrong man. With this new evidence, Bobby Joe was granted a new trial and shortly thereafter the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office announced he would not be retried. He was free.
Bobby Joe took his newfound freedom and set out to help others; for 30 years he reached out to the most disadvantaged youth in Boston as a Street Worker. At a time when drugs and guns were slaughtering the youth in the minority community, he told his friend, Judge Muse, “If I could save just one young man’s life or keep him from jail, it would all be worth it.”
He saved more than one; Bobby Joe saved hundreds of Boston’s youth. He went into the inner-city housing projects and tough street corners to tirelessly steer kids away from gangs and back to school or jobs. Even as he approached 70 and started hinting at retirement, he never stopped working passionately for the most at-risk young people in Boston.
He loved teaching. He loved speaking. He first came BC Law in 1988 when he and his lawyers were invited to speak to Professor Phyllis Goldfarb’s Criminal Justice Clinic class, and this graduate of the all black Hopewell High school, with just basic literacy skills, continued as a “visiting lecturer” at the Newton campus for the next 30 years.
Professor Goldfarb recalls: “Bobby Joe not only had a compelling story to share, he had a soft-spoken and gentle demeanor, and an almost spiritual aura about him, a spirituality likely deepened by his suffering. His personality challenged any stereotypes of convicted felons, and the obvious closeness and family feeling between the lawyers and their client was an inspirational lesson in itself.” Bobby Joe continued speaking to Professor Goldfarb’s class, successfully providing a “window into the human suffering that law can cause and that dedicated lawyers can sometimes help alleviate.”
When Judge Muse began teaching Trial Practice in 2005, Bobby Joe would participate in mock trials, where some of the best lawyers demonstrated their trial skills. Bobby Joe played a part he knew all too well: the defendant. At the completion of the trial he would answer questions from the students. At one of his visits, I asked him what advice he had for aspiring lawyers. He smiled at Judge Muse, a man he now called his brother, and said, “Faith.”
As he spoke to the BC Law community that November evening in 2013, it struck me—as it strikes me still today—that in the 32 years I knew Bobby Joe, I never heard him talk poorly of anyone, including the members of a system that had failed him. He did not place blame, nor was he plagued with bitterness. His story was an uncomfortable reality that injustice exists within the confines of our revered criminal justice system. Yet Bobby Joe was profoundly grateful and purely decent.
Bobby Joe’s true gift—whether he was before law students, gang-affiliated youth, probation officers, his fellow street workers, the legislature, judges, or his lawyers—was that he inspired greatness.
I was a child the first time I can remember meeting Bobby Joe. It was not in a lecture hall but in my grandparents’ living room in Brookline, and he was never introduced as anyone’s client but as a dear friend. I am confident that he inspired so many of the law students he spoke to, but I can say for certain that his life inspired my dream of being a lawyer and practicing criminal law.
Because of my own and my family’s history with Bobby Joe, as a student at BC Law I was eager to participate in Professor Sharon Beckman’s Wrongful Convictions Seminar. My externship involved working for Lisa Kavanaugh, director of the Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Innocence Program, as she fought to exonerate Victor Rosario. In 2017, after being granted a new trial, the charges against him were dismissed.
Now, as a prosecutor, I think of Bobby Joe daily. His memory is a constant reminder of what happens when the procedure is more important than the person. His memory is a constant reminder that at the core of our system, whether defendant or victim, are people who suffer. As lawyers we can, with humility, humanity, and a lot faith, do great things.
Thank you, Bobby Joe, for your endless inspiration and for all your faith.
Rita Muse is a 2015 graduate who worked on the Victor Rosario case through the BC Law Innocence Program. Read more about her and the case on BC Law Magazine online.