BOSTON -- Closing arguments were heard last Thursday in the civil-rights suit against Ayer Police Chief William Murray filed by Level 3 sex offender John King and his wife Ashley King. The couple claims Murray stalled King's attempt to register as a sex offender intending to live in Ayer in order to buy time to ensure an Ayer bylaw was on the books.
Plaintiff counsel John Swomley painted a picture of Murray only answering King's emails on April 24, within minutes of confirming that Town Clerk John Canney had publically posted the bylaw, putting the bylaw in full effect.
"That's not the only reason," answered Murray.
Swomley argued that Murray "focused" much of his "attention" on King's application and emailed Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand on April 20, stating "unfortunately our new bylaw is not in place" due to a procedural snafu in which the clerk had not yet posted the bylaw in five public spots, as is required.
"There was nothing prohibiting him from registering at that location" said Swomley.
"Well, he hadn't registered yet," said Murray. King was advised that he could return with a letter addressed to himself at the Whitcomb Avenue home as one form of written verification of his intended address.
"You expect him to have already received mail?" asked Swomley.
"That's how it's done, yes sir," answered Murray.
"I get the point," said Young. "The chief agrees it's a Catch 22."
The Ayer bylaw was effectuated April 24, five days after King initiated his registration application to live in Ayer at the police station on April 19.
The plaintiff played a seven-minute portion of the May 1 Ayer Board of Selectmen's meeting. During that portion of the meeting, Ayer Town Clerk John Canney was pressed as to why the bylaw wasn't posted sooner. The Attorney General's Office advised the town in a Feb. 22 letter that the bylaw wouldn't take effect until it was posted.
The grainy image flickered on large-screen monitors. Canney explained he wanted to "Make sure I wasn't doing anything that set up a challenge to the law due to an improper posting." Canney explained that there was much back and forth dialogue with the Attorney General's Office to ensure the posting was procedurally correct.
"And this took three months?" asked selectman Christopher Hillman. "About 60 days," answered Canney.
"And you never told Chief Murray that this wasn't in effect?" asked Hillman. No, answered Canney.
From off camera, Murray could be heard telling the selectmen that, due to the ultimate posting of the bylaw "we dodged a bullet" and added King "never got registered" and that King "decided not to move to town."
"I do believe I got it right and the process was upheld," said Canney. "If challenged, it will never be on the process I followed."
Selectman Frank Maxant was in the courtroom while the videotape played. He was able to hear his comments from seven months earlier which, in retrospect, foreshadowed the suit filed against the town.
"I believe the bylaw puts a big bull's-eye right on our forehead," said Maxant on the videotape.
Murray confirmed his voice was on the tape and that he spoke at that selectmen's meeting. "My attention was more on Mr. Canney and his not doing his job and what that meant to the community."
Under questioning by town counsel Leonard Kesten, Murray explained that the bylaw status was first questioned by Ayer Police Lt. Brian Gill, who oversees sex offender notification details for the department. Murray visited Canney for details and was told the bylaw had not yet been posted.
"I was a little angry," admitted Murray, who said Canney claimed the bylaw wasn't posted yet because of "monetary" issues.
Though King stated he'd be in on Monday with proof of his intended Ayer address, King didn't show up at the department until Thursday. In the interim, Canney ultimately posted the bylaw on Tuesday afternoon. Murray stated he emailed King on Wednesday, advising King that they needed to talk about the now-effectuated Ayer bylaw.
"Did you feel he could not register?" asked Kesten.
"I felt there was a bylaw in effect," answered Murray. "To move in would be a violation."
Young stated that he'd rule no sooner than Dec. 18 on the suit against Murray to provide the plaintiffs added time to review other Ayer Town Meeting and selectmen meeting tapes.
If Young rules for the plaintiffs, the trial would end with the assessment of damages against Murray and/or the town of Ayer. In the alternative, denying the merits of the civil-rights suit would spark "phase 2" of the case -- an examination of the constitutionality of the Ayer sex offender restrictive bylaw.
The bylaw, approved by Town Meeting in October 2011, bans all Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders from establishing a new residence within 1,000 feet of parks and senior housing projects. Ashley King's home, purchased for her by her parents in June 2011, is located within 1,000 feet of both Pirone Park and the Pond Street elder housing complex.
The Kings and their newborn son live in the interim with Ashley King's parents in Harvard.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.