Martha Coakley was Massachusetts attorney general barely two weeks in January 2007 when Boston was locked down after authorities discovered what they thought were bombs planted around the city.
The wiring and batteries turned out to be light boards advertising a television cartoon, and the two perpetrators made no friends among the public when they showed no remorse at their first court appearance, even joking about their hairdos.
Despite cries for swift punishment for the men, Coakley declined to press criminal charges, saying it would have been hard to convince a jury the men intended to cause panic. She later announced a $2 million settlement that included community service for them.
The measured, slow-pulse response is a hallmark of the state's first female attorney general, a 56-year-old who has climbed the professional and legal ladders with quiet proficiency.
Among her highest-profile cases: helping successfully prosecute British nanny Louise Woodward after she was accused of shaking an infant to death in 1997.
Now Coakley is the lone woman — and Democratic frontrunner — in the race to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. While she downplays her gender, it has been an underpinning of Coakley's campaign against a field of men.
"I'm still young enough to have a lot of energy to do it, but old enough to have some wisdom and experience," Coakley said moments after she declared her candidacy. "And, frankly, as my Dad said when I graduated from law school, he gave me a plaque that said, 'Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.'"
Dodie Hughes-LaPlante would testify to that.
In 1999, just two days before Coakley was sworn in as Middlesex district attorney, 19-year-old Betsie Hughes of Townsend and her boyfriend, Sean Wellington, 18, of Pepperell, were killed in a car crash caused by a repeat drunken driver.
"There's no way to describe what you're going through, and to know that with these people, everything was going to be taken care of properly, it was very reassuring," Hughes-LaPlante said.
Coakley was born in Lee but soon moved to North Adams, in the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts. She was one of five children for an insurance salesman and homemaker.
She went to nearby Williams College, graduating cum laude in 1975. In 1979, she received her law degree from Boston University. Coakley began her career in civil litigation at two Boston law firms, before joining the Middlesex District Attorney's office in 1986. After a stint working for the U.S. Justice Department in its Boston Organized Crime Strike Force, she returned to the DA's office and became head of its child abuse prosecution unit in 1991.
Coakley resigned in 1997 and was elected DA in Middlesex County, the most populous in the state, in 1998. She made her first statewide run in 2006 and was elected attorney general.
Critics say she has burnished her record by cutting deals when she should have gone for the jugular. They cite a settlement with the Big Dig's prime contractor that resulted in no one going to jail despite a fatal 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse. Coakley blames weak state liability laws and notes she won nearly $500 million for a tunnel maintenance fund.
Tom Reilly, who hired Coakley as a prosecutor, tapped her for the Eappen case and was replaced by her as Middlesex district attorney and attorney general, said he has been pleased with his protege's development.
"She's very, very smart to begin with, but she's a bookworm and also has the ability to listen to different views, to compromise and to work with people to solve problems. She's result-oriented. She has an openness to her," he said.
EDUCATION: B.A. from Williams College, 1975, J.D. degree from Boston University Law School, 1979
CAREER: attorney, Parker, Coulter, Daley & White, 1979-1980; attorney, Goodwin Proctor LLP, 1980-1986; assistant district attorney, Middlesex District Attorney's office 1986-1987 and 1989-1997. special attorney, Boston Organized Crime Strike Force, 1987-1989; Middlesex District Attorney, 1999-2007; president, Massachusetts District Attorney's Association, 2001; Attorney General of Massachusetts, 2007-present; served as president of Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, and on board of directors of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
FAMILY: Lives in Medford with her husband, Thomas F. O'Connor Jr.