In 2003, 17-year-old Frances Choy was arrested in Brockton, Mass. for pouring gasoline around her home and setting a fire that killed her parents. After two trials where the jury failed to reach a verdict, in 2011 she was on murder and arson charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Kenneth Choy, Ms. Choy’s 16-year-old nephew, who also lived in the home, was tried on murder charges but was acquitted shortly after Ms. Choy’s first mistrial and quickly after fled to Hong Kong in 2008.
This September, Judge Linda E. Giles vacated the convictions following Ms. Choy’s lawyers’ discovery of multiple issues that occurred at her third trial, when she was indicted. In addition, Judge Giles also ruled that emails that recently emerged proved the trial prosecutors showed “racial animus” against Ms. Choy and members of her family. These emails include exchanges of images of Asian people, some with derogatory comments, ‘jokes’ about Asian stereotypes, and cartoons mocking Asian people speaking imperfect Asian. The prosecutors’ disturbing emails went even further and made jokes insinuating Ms. Choy committed incest with Kenneth Choy, who now, with new evidence, is thought to be the one who had actually set the fire and blamed Ms. Choy.
The numerous problems that occurred at Ms. Choy’s third trial are now revealed, which, in combination with the discriminatory emails, led to Judge Giles overturning the conviction. At her trial the prosecutors made Ms. Choy out to be an emotionless killer who wanted her parents’ life insurance and to spend more time with her boyfriend. Prosecutors presented Ms. Choy’s sweatpants that she was wearing after the fire as evidence from a State Police chemist, claiming the sweatpants tested positive for gasoline residue. Yet, following her conviction, Ms. Choy’s legal team hired an analytical chemist who concluded that no gasoline residue was on her sweatpants. Although Kenneth had already been suspected in setting the fire, after he testified against Ms. Choy, her attorney did not bother to call an expert witness or interview others about Kenneth’s role in the fire. The key witness, who Ms. Choy’s trial lawyer did not contact, was a friend of Kenneth’s, who later put in a sworn statement that Kenneth admitted he started the fire. The key witness said Kenneth did so out of revenge, and even bragged about being found not guilty. Prosecutors also withheld the knowledge of two other fires at the home while Ms. Choy was incarcerated.
The prosecutors involved were Karen O’Sullivan and John Bradley. O’Sullivan left the Plymouth County’s district attorney’s office years ago and now works in the Bristol County’s DA office, while Bradley was fired from the Plymouth office in 2012. While incarcerated, Ms. Choy pursued a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and graduated magna cum laude. Her Attorney John Barter said, in a statement from People magazine, that “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.” Her other Attorney Sharon Beckman agreed and shared, “Frances 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,” according to the New York Times.
We too hope this case will lead to reform, in not just the realm of wrongful convictions, but the racism that exists that often leads to them. The racially degrading comments of the prosecutors in this case, and more subtly in many others, caused both the prosecutors and the jury to view Ms. Choy as a stereotype and disregards her humanity. Thanks to Ms. Choy’s persistence and the support and work of her attorneys, Ms. Choy was able to achieve justice that is long overdue. With her attorneys she was able to fight back against the system, and hopefully will inspire others to do the same. We are glad to see Ms. Choy win back her life, and hope to help others do the same.