Kathleen Wrigley has lived through two death penalty cases in her familyFARGO - Many know her husband as the prosecutor of North Dakota’s only federal death-penalty case, one of the most horrific crimes in this region’s history.
By: Robin Huebner, INFORUM
FARGO - Many know her husband as the prosecutor of North Dakota’s only federal death-penalty case, one of the most horrific crimes in this region’s history.
What many don’t know is that while then-U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Drew Wrigley was prosecuting Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. for Dru Sjodin’s abduction and murder, Kathleen Wrigley was embroiled in her own very personal death penalty ordeal.
Edward Bracey, the man who 22 years ago killed Kathleen’s only sibling – rookie Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Boyle – still sits on death row in a maximum-security Pennsylvania prison.
While most of us have no firsthand involvement in a death penalty case, Kathleen has lived it both as a victim’s family member and as the wife of a death penalty prosecutor.
Kathleen and Drew Wrigley lived in Fargo while he was a U.S. attorney and moved to Bismarck after he became the state’s lieutenant governor.
They met in the mid-1990s in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where he worked as an assistant attorney and she as a victim’s advocate after the trial for her brother’s killer ended.
“I was very impressed with her strength in the face of that,” said Drew Wrigley, who was not involved in prosecuting Bracey.
Drew describes both himself and Kathleen as “law and order” people.
Both say the two death penalty cases in their lives are distinctly different and separate.
“We don’t talk about them intersecting,” said Drew.
However, to outside observers, the parallels are striking.
Both killers want their death sentences overturned based on mental deficiencies.
Both Bracey and Rodriguez murdered their victims not long after being let out of prison.
Rodriguez was released after doing time for rape and attempted kidnapping.
Bracey got out before he finished his sentence for armed robbery and car theft.
Philadelphia jails were overcrowded at the time, forcing the city to release thousands of inmates.
“Because on that day, he wasn’t deemed violent enough, he was let out with just his signature and a promise that he would appear for his court hearing,” said Kathleen. And that hearing “came and went,” she said.
Just a few weeks later, during the early morning hours of Feb. 4, 1991, Bracey shot and killed Officer Danny Boyle.
As a rookie cop on the job for only a few months, Officer Boyle worked the overnight shift.
He was assigned to one of Philadelphia’s toughest northside neighborhoods. Nicknamed ‘The Badlands,’ the 26th District had become notorious for drug-related violence.
Wrigley says her brother often had a more experienced partner assigned to him during his shift. But due to tight budgets, he occasionally had to work solo, and such was the case that fateful day.
According to Wrigley and to media reports about the crime, Boyle was in his squad car early that morning when he spotted a car driving with no headlights the wrong way on a one-way street.
“Especially because of the area, he absolutely should not have been by himself,” said Kathleen.
Officer Boyle tried to get the car to pull over, but the driver wouldn’t stop.
A friend who was in the car with Bracey would later testify at trial that the two had stolen the vehicle and were on their way to rob other drug dealers.
A pursuit began, but when the brakes failed on the suspects’ vehicle, it crashed into a wall.
“He (Bracey) told his friend ‘Ain’t no cop taking me down tonight,’ ” said Kathleen.
She said according to the friend’s testimony, as soon as the officer stopped the car, the killer’s friend knew it wasn’t going to go well, so he jumped out and hid, watching the shooting unfold.
When Boyle pulled up alongside the stolen Buick Riviera, Bracey leapt up onto the squad car’s hood holding a 9mm handgun.
“He pointed the gun at Danny through the windshield and said ‘Do not go for your gun, do not call for help. Put your hands up,’ ” Kathleen said.
Boyle put his hands up on the dash, and seconds later Bracey started firing.
The second bullet struck Boyle in the head, piercing his right temple.
What happened next, said Kathleen, fighting back tears, speaks to Boyle’s strength, youth and training as a cop.
Before his body was able to absorb the trauma of the bullet to the brain, Boyle put the squad car in reverse and picked up the police radio to describe the suspect and call for help.
The first time Kathleen and her parents heard that radio call was when the recording was played at Bracey’s trial.
“He was screaming ‘Officer down, officer down. Please help me, please don’t let me die,’ ” said Kathleen.
“I’ll never forget that, just the echoing of those bullets and him pleading for help.”
Boyle soon lost consciousness and was rushed to a hospital, where he died two days later.
Officer Boyle was just 21 years old – the youngest Philadelphia officer to die in the line of duty.
He left behind his parents and then-20-year-old Kathleen, the sister he always called ‘kid.’
Police officers from all over the country came for Boyle’s funeral, where the procession stretched 13 miles long.
Stories in the newspapers looked back on the all-too-short life of the “young Irish cop.”
“When people talk about a broken heart, this is what it was,” said Kathleen, “Just broken.”
Man on fire
The law caught up with Bracey the very same day Officer Boyle died.
According to Kathleen, Bracey had been hiding out with various family members, and when police moved in on him at his sister’s home, he took off running over rooftops of the row houses.
Bracey then broke through a bathroom skylight of one home, promptly doused himself with nail polish remover and lit himself on fire.
It was an effort, said Kathleen, to prevent being arrested or killed by police.
Bracey ran around the house in a ball of flames, lighting curtains and furniture on fire.
The home belonged to a woman who was away at work at the time. But her young children were there – and in effect barricaded inside by a padlock their mother put on the door because of crime in the neighborhood.
The children watched the events unfold from their hiding spot in a closet.
“These children were traumatized by the smell of human flesh burning,” said Kathleen, “the sight of seeing a man engulfed in flames.”
The older children and their mother testified at Bracey’s trial about needing therapy to cope.
“He brought so many victims down with him,” said Kathleen.
After his arrest, Bracey spent several months recovering in a burn unit before he was well enough to be taken to prison.
“We were shocked that he lived through the injuries,” Kathleen said.
“Seeing him last month in court,” she said, “you can see his skin is still damaged on the left side, neck and head.”
Death penalty imposed
Edward Bracey was brought to trial about a year and a half after Officer Boyle’s death.
Jury selection and the trial were delayed when it was learned that Bracey would also be tried for what was thought to be a drug-related murder that happened two weeks before Boyle was killed.
Kathleen said the trial was traumatizing; like going through the night of Danny’s murder and the days that followed all over again.
“On a different level, it’s worse, because you hear details you could have never imagined,” she said. “The wounds are ripped open, and you have to re-grieve again.”
The jury found Bracey guilty of murder in the first degree.
Jurors then went directly to the task of determining his sentence – either life in prison or the death penalty.
“They came back with a death verdict before we were even out of City Hall,” said Kathleen.
The family’s reaction was that justice was served.
“I will be honest,” she said. “There was something very powerful and even healing in hearing that he was going to be sentenced to the maximum.”
“Death row was what he brought on himself by his actions,” she said.
Yet Kathleen realizes there’s a good chance Bracey will never be executed.
Pennsylvania has a serious backlog of death penalty cases, with nearly 200 inmates on death row and many of them at the end of their appeals processes.
The last time someone was executed there was 1999, but that inmate had waived all of his appeals.
As for death-row inmates who are fighting the process, the last execution was 1962.
Wrigley says it’s not the execution itself – which would be by lethal injection – that’s important to her, but rather that her brother’s killer remain housed on death row.
“He is in solitary confinement 23 hours a day,” said Kathleen. “For one hour, he is able to walk the halls shackled for exercise. Very different than serving life in the prison’s general population, where as a cop killer, he’d be heralded as a hero in some circles.”
She is adamant that his sentence not be reduced to life in prison.
“That would unearth the peace that I have worked so hard on all these years,” Kathleen said.
The victim’s voice
Dealing with Bracey’s appeals over the years has taken a toll on Kathleen, her parents and extended family.
One appeal came to a head in 2006-2007, when Drew Wrigley was in the throes of prosecuting the Rodriguez case. However, Kathleen didn’t have to go to Philadelphia because the hearing was continued.
She did, though, attend the latest appeal hearing last month for the now 49-year-old Bracey.
Bracey’s attorneys, citing new case law, are asking that his death sentence be overturned because it’s unconstitutional to execute someone who is “mentally retarded.”
It was the first time Kathleen saw Bracey in person since he was convicted and sentenced in her brother’s death.
“It’s like, ‘How dare you’ after 22 years?” she said.
“Just because new case law has come up, that affords this person another opportunity, as an excuse? You can’t rewrite history.”
She said Bracey’s family testified that he is mentally slow because “he didn’t sweep the floor right as a child and didn’t put his clothes away properly.”
“I was hearing this and thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” she said. “He had the wherewithal to rob drug dealers!”
During the weeklong hearing that began April 16, the only mention of Officer Boyle and his murder came in the first few minutes of opening statements by the district attorney.
“Otherwise, it was all about Bracey and his alleged mental handicaps,” Kathleen said.
While she didn’t have to be at the hearing, she felt compelled to do so.
“If we weren’t there, Danny would never have entered into the equation,” she said.
“We are an extension of him, and his (Bracey’s) deliberate actions affected and still affect us.”
Kathleen remembers her big brother with deep fondness.
Just a little over a year apart in age, “We were buddies,” she said. “He had a great sense of humor … super goofy and fun.”
She said Danny couldn’t wait to graduate high school and, when he did, he worked odd jobs in home construction.
But as soon as he took the test for the police academy, “the light bulb went off.”
And it’s no surprise, because the Boyles are a law enforcement family, through and through.
Kathleen’s father was a Philly police officer for more than 40 years.
All of her dad’s brothers were police officers, and her mom’s sisters’ husbands were police officers.
“Blue must run through my blood,” Kathleen said.
Though she says she had several premonition-like dreams about a month before Danny died, Kathleen never worried about his safety on the job during her waking hours.
“We thought we were invincible,” she said.
Kathleen and her parents keep Danny’s memory alive through his scholarship fund, which provides educational opportunities to kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
And she says her brother is with her in other ways.
Danny was shot at 2:42 a.m. on a Monday. According to her birth certificate, the oldest of the Wrigleys’ three children was born on a Monday at precisely 2:42 a.m.
“I believe that was his way of telling me, ‘I’m still here with you, in a different way,’ ” said Kathleen. “It was very comforting.”
Kathleen has drawn on her faith to endure quite a few hurdles – from Danny’s untimely death to her surviving an aneurysm and brain surgeries, and dealing with vision problems after one of the operations.
The hardships have inspired her to run and raise money in marathons to benefit those causes.
With what Kathleen has been through, “She could be bitter, she could go to a dark place,” said Drew Wrigley.
“She’s elected every day to not do that. She remains a very positive, sunny, optimistic person.”
There were days Kathleen wasn’t so sure.
“We were so broken after Danny died, I could never see any happy days ahead. There were days I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
“And here I am, on the other side of it.”
A new life
On Oct. 28, a judge is expected to hear arguments for and against revoking Bracey’s death sentence.
The judge could even make a ruling that day.
Kathleen will be there in Philadelphia – the city in which she was born and raised – to make sure her brother’s memory fills the courtroom.
Then she’ll return to North Dakota, the place that gave her a fresh start as Kathleen Wrigley, “Even though I’m still Danny Boyle’s sister,” she said wistfully.
“With my history, (living in North Dakota) allowed me to build my own life. It’s a gift, and I’ve found peace here.”
Huebner is a reporter for The Forum and a producer and anchor at WDAY-TV. Reach her at (701) 451-5607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org