By Lee Levison ’77 and Jim Rehnquist ’77

David Meier arrived at Amherst in 1973 from Palo Alto, Calif., where he grew up as a faculty brat on the Stanford campus. He oozed West Coast: flip-flops (then novel), Stanford T-shirts and ’49ers paraphernalia, a fondness for Coors (none back East) and a laid-back persona that we came to learn was misleading. He took political science courses, but unlike many of us, he went beyond the Earl Latham game plan—“Earl right, Earl left, Earl up the middle!”—to the more demanding offerings of George Kateb and Hadley Arkes. He was a ghost as a senior, absorbed in a thesis on the Victorian juvenile justice system.

Law school was inevitable. But upon graduating from Boston University Law School in 1981, David spurned riches and comfort, opting for public service. Beginning as an entry-level Assistant D.A. in suburban Boston’s Middlesex County, he eventually served for a decade as head of the homicide unit in Boston’s urban Suffolk County, overseeing hundreds of murder prosecutions and trying the hard ones himself. He was forever on-call, carrying a beeper, later a BlackBerry, on which he was contacted whenever the Boston police found a dead body. A night out with Meier usually included salacious overheard details about corpses, interrogations and search warrant applications.

During his 25 years in law enforcement, he was a practically perfect prosecutor: smart, tough, dedicated and, above all, fair. Though tirelessly devoted to his public constituents—victims and their families—he was universally respected not only by the cops he hung around with but also by defense attorneys and judges. His commitment was always to criminal justice, not just prosecution.

In a series of recent controversial cases, he sought the release of incarcerated defendants, many serving life terms for murder, who he concluded had been wrongfully convicted. In a 2007 Boston Globe profile of him, he described the government’s decisions in these cases as “made on principle and integrity. Those were my guideposts, and in the end, the decisions were easy to make.” 

Most of us, despite our original aspirations, are fortunate to achieve a modest measure of private consequence. David Meier, on the other hand, has been profoundly and publicly consequential.

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