WALTER JAY SKINNER. In 1986, when I was a reporter for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, I covered all but one week of a 78-day trial in US District Court over the question of whether two corporations were responsible for contaminating a Woburn neighborhood's drinking water, causing numerous cases of childhood leukemia, some fatal. Even then, what had happened in Woburn was a matter of some national renown; but the story became far better known because of Jonathan Harr's excellent book, A Civil Action, and, later, a mediocre movie by the same name.
Presiding over the trial was Judge Walter Jay Skinner, who died on Sunday. As this obituary in the Boston Globe by Tom Long points out, Skinner was caricatured in the movie as a heartless bastard in the thrall of corporate interests. Skinner's reported reaction to that unfair characterization: "It goes with the territory."
In fact, Skinner did occasionally - perhaps more than occasionally - light into the family's lawyers, principally Jan Schlichtmann, though another member of the team, Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, was not immune from Skinner's lash, either. The problem was that though the families had both a heartbreaking story and compelling evidence, Schlichtmann was seriously outlawyered by W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, the two defendants accused of being responsible for the contamination.
Skinner was a reserved and dignified man of great integrity - a Yankee Republican who made his name by going up against the Democratic-fueled corruption of his era, and who went on to enjoy a distinguished judicial career. He'll be missed.