Wednesday, May 11, 2005

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.


John Farrell said...

Small world, Dan. Charlie Ryan, the reporter who first investigated and made the initial reports leading to the Woburn case (and whom I seem to recall got a Pulitzer nomination for the series of stories about it) also edited a small science fiction quarterly--that I used to help edit (meaning I read submissions) for him back in the early 90s.

Dan Kennedy said...

John - Smaller by the second! Yes, Charlie did break the early stories about the Woburn leukemia cluster. He put the most important ones online here:

No Pulitzer nomination, unfortunately, although he deserved it. A few years ago, when the movie came out, I wrote a long overview for the Phoenix in which, among other things, I sat down and talked with Charlie. Kind of weird interviewing my old editor, but what he said made it worthwhile. Go here:

And by the way ... the name of Charlie's magazine was Aboriginal SF, and I helped him get it off the ground in the 1980s, reading manuscripts and proofreading. So how do you like that!

Charlie is now at the Willimantic Chronicle in Connecticut. Here's a piece he wrote on getting hooked on tobacco while in the Peace Corps:

Anonymous said...

What are the odds that another person like him, (i.e. Republican) will make it onto the court? Too much "scorched earth" to walk across......