Massachusetts Woman Jailed for 17 Years is Freed After Prosecutors’ Racist Emails Emerge

frances choy

Frances Choy, a 34-year-old woman from Brockton, Massachusetts who was wrongfully convicted and spent 17 years in jail for the death of her parents, has been freed after the recent discovery of racist emails between prosecutors in her case.

Prosecutors filed a nolle prosequi, an official notice stating they will no longer pursue the charges against Choy and will not go forward with the fourth murder trial in a status hearing on Tuesday, according to WBUR.

 

What Happened

Choy, who was only 17 at the time, was accused of killing her parents, Jimmy and Anne Trahn Choy, in a fire that happened in their home on Belair Street in Brockton on April 17, 2003. She survived the fire along with her 16-year-old nephew, Kenneth Choy, who is the grandson of Jimmy Choy from a previous marriage in Hong Kong.

Both Choy and Kenneth were questioned by the Brockton Police in 2003. The teen denied any knowledge of the fire. The police said at some point she admitted to having a role in the crime, but she retracted her statement.

At the time, the police said they did not have any way of recording interrogations, but Choy’s defense presented evidence from a retired Brockton Police officer proving it was false and the police were able to record the questioning.

The police also questioned Kenneth and the two notes found where he talked about how to set the house on fire. However, he claimed Choy was the one who told him to write the notes.

Choy faced three trials, with the first two resulting in hung juries, and was sentenced to life in prison at her third trial in 2011 at the age of 25.

Meanwhile, Kenneth was acquitted of two counts of murder in 2008 and testified under immunity during Choy’s second trial. However, he fled to Hong Kong shortly before his aunt’s third trial where prosecutors role-played his previous testimony.

Racist Messages Between Prosecutors

The decision to not pursue another trial came after the court discovered evidence showing that prosecutors were racially biased against Choy, among other issues with her case.

The messages exchanged by Assistant District Attorneys John Bradley and Karen O’Sullivan include “racially and sexually offensive emails” where they mocked the Choy family, wrote derogatory notes about her, and used racial stereotypes against Asians, according to the written decision by Plymouth Superior Court Judge Linda Giles who vacated Choy’s convictions on September 17.

“The trial prosecutors exchanged numerous images of Asian people, some accompanied by pejorative comments and some unexplained,” Giles wrote in her decision. “They exchanged jokes about Asian stereotypes and mocking caricatures of Asians using imperfect English.”

John Barter, Choy’s attorney, had reportedly been fighting for the emails for five years. Most of them were only released last year after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office to turn them over.

“These emails were written in the context of a first degree murder trial,” Sharon Beckman, an attorney with Boston College’s Innocence Program and co-counsel for Choy, said. “Usually it’s hard to prove bias or show a violation of the Constitution based on racism, but what’s unusual in this case is that the emails show what the prosecutors were thinking. They wrote their discrimination down.”

In Giles’ written decision, the Plymouth District Attorney’s office acknowledged the emails and called them “reprehensible.” Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz also said he has already taken steps to provide training to increase awareness of conscious and unconscious bias to ensure his staff adheres to the highest and professional standards.

Other Issues in Choy’s Case

In her written decision, Giles also mentioned other issues surrounding Choy’s case, including how her own attorney failing to provide a chemist as an expert witness to prove the claim there was gasoline residue found on her sweatpants, Boston Globe reported.

A reevaluation after Choy’s conviction showed no presence of gasoline residue on her sweatpants. Investigators were not able to test Kenneth’s clothing.

Additionally, the attorney failed to interview the alleged friend Kenneth spoke to about his plans to set the house on fire as revenge on his grandfather, who allegedly beat and verbally abused him. Jimmy Choy reportedly suspected Kenneth of dealing drugs.

Kenneth was also suspected of setting subsequent fires in the Choy family home after being acquitted of the charges and while Frances Choy was incarcerated.

Prosecutors never shared this information with the Choy’s attorney at the time and after learning of what happened, one of the prosecutors told her colleague, “I think you should just [drop] Frances’s case right now.”

Wrongful Conviction

Beckman said Choy’s wrongful conviction resulted “from racism and other official misconduct and systemic failures.”

“She can never get back the 17 years the criminal legal system took from her, but we are overjoyed at her exoneration and hope her case will inspire meaningful reform,” she added.

Barter expressed gratitude for the District Attorney office’s cooperation in Choy’s case and said he was “pleased that Frances is exonerated and home with her family.”

“However, it is tragic that Frances lost her parents, and was then charged with their death, pursued through repeated trials, and deprived for years after her conviction of access to evidence that supported her innocence,” he added in a statement.

He also described Choy as a “remarkable person who doesn’t seem to have any bitterness toward the world” who is “just looking forward to living her life quietly.”

While inside the prison, Choy was able to obtain her bachelor’s degree and certificates in cooking and cosmetology. She also trained service dogs for disabled veterans.

It was a “tough and long journey” to prove her innocence, Choy said in a statement provided by her lawyers.

“Nothing can erase the pain of losing my parents and how they suffered. I miss them every day. Even in prison I tried to live my life in a way that honored them,” she added. “I’m relieved that the truth has been revealed and to have my life back beyond prison walls.”

Choy is now the first woman of color to be exonerated in Massachusetts, according to her lawyer.

“This may be the first case in the U.S. where a murder conviction has been thrown out because of racism on the part of prosecutors,” Barter said.

Feature Image via John Barter/Frances Choy

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