The state will not pursue a fourth murder trial for Frances Choy. She was convicted of setting her Brockton home on fire and killing her parents in 2003. A judge vacated her conviction earlier this year — in part because of the discovery of racist emails written by the prosecutors who tried the case.
At a status hearing Tuesday afternoon, the Plymouth County District Attorney filed a nolle prosequi — meaning it will not seek another trial.
"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," said John Barter, attorney for Frances Choy.
Choy is one of the few women of color to be exonerated in Massachusetts, according to her lawyers. (Based on National Registry of Exonerations, the last known woman of color to be cleared in the state was Ella Mae Ellison in 1978.)
Barter fought for the emails for almost five years. Most of them were released last year after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Plymouth County DA to turn them over. In the emails, prosecutors mocked the Choy family and wrote derogatory notes about Frances Choy and others — sometimes invoking racial stereotypes against Asians.
"These emails were written in the context of a first degree murder trial," said Sharon Beckman, an attorney with Boston College's Innocence Program and co-counsel for Choy. "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 April, Choy was released to home confinement after spending 17 years in prison. Plymouth Superior Court judge Linda Giles stayed Choy's life in prison sentence and, in September, granted the motion to vacate Choy's conviction.
"The trial prosecutors exchanged numerous images of Asian people, some accompanied by pejorative comments and some unexplained. They exchanged jokes about Asian stereotypes and mocking caricatures of Asians using imperfect English," Judge Giles wrote in her decision.
The Plymouth County DA's Office did not object to vacating Choy's convictions. In Tuesday's hearing, the DA's office said that it has taken a number of remedial steps to ensure that every prosecution is fair.
In a statement to WBUR, District Attorney Tim Cruz said that the decision to not call for another trial was dictated by "justice and fairness."
“Today’s outcome was the culmination of hundreds of hours of diligence by prosecutors in my office working cooperatively with appellate counsel to identify a number of significant legal issues that we could not ignore," he said. "The role of every prosecutor is to ensure that justice is done. Fairness not only dictated our decision today, but is central to every decision we make.”
Previously, the DA's office acknowledged that the emails showed that the two prosecutors were biased against Asians and called the emails "reprehensible" and "horrific." The office said it has worked to train prosecutors about confronting and dealing with racial bias.
One of the prosecutors, Karen O'Sullivan, now works in the Bristol County District Attorney's Office. The other prosecutor, John Bradley, left the office in 2012 and later sued the DA over his termination.
"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."Attorney Sharon Beckman
Choy was convicted of murder and arson charges after her third trial in 2011. (Her first two trials resulted in hung juries.) She was accused of setting fire to her family's Brockton home in April of 2003, when she was 17 years old. The fire killed her parents, Jimmy and Anne Trahn Choy. Firefighters rescued Frances Choy and her then 16-year-old nephew Kenneth Choy from the home. Kenneth was Jimmy Choy's grandson from a previous marriage and had been living in the Brockton home.
Kenneth Choy was acquitted of murder charges in 2008. After his trial, Kenneth testified under immunity in Frances' second trial. For her third trial, prosecutors role-played Kenneth's previous testimony because he had fled to Hong Kong shortly before that trial.
During lengthy questioning by police in 2003, Frances said she had no knowledge of how the fire started. Police said at some point she admitted to having a role in the fire, but then retracted her statement. There were no recordings or notes from the police questioning. At the time police said they did not have the equipment necessary to record interrogations. But Frances Choy's defense presented an affidavit from a retired Brockton police officer indicating that was false and police were able to record questioning.
When police asked Kenneth Choy about two notes that he had written about how to set the house on fire, Kenneth said that Frances told him to write the notes and she used gasoline to start the fire.
In her decision to vacate the conviction, Judge Giles also cited new evidence in the case and questions about Kenneth Choy's role as a key prosecution witness.
Although state police chemist John Drugan testified that gasoline residue was found on the sweatpants Frances was wearing the morning of the fire, a reevaluation after her conviction did not show the presence of gasoline residue. Kenneth's clothing was not tested.
"It is evident that from the time that Frances was questioned by the State and Brockton Police as a seventeen year old, and through her third trial where the Commonwealth, at the eleventh hour, substituted a role-play of a transcript for their most important, but least credible witness, Frances was disadvantaged by a range of circumstances, procedures and rulings," Giles wrote.
Defense attorney John Barter said while she was in prison, Frances Choy obtained her bachelor's degree, as well as certificates in cooking and cosmetology and she trained service dogs for disabled veterans. He says she is eager to move forward.
"Despite the fact that as a 17-year-old she was sent off to prison and charged with a crime she didn't commit, she's a remarkable person who doesn't seem to have any bitterness toward the world," Barter said. "She's just looking forward to living her life quietly."
In a statement provided by her lawyers, Choy said it has been a "tough and long journey" to prove her innocence.
"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 said. "I'm relieved that the truth has been revealed and to have my life back beyond prison walls."
At the end of Tuesday's hearing, Judge Giles commended both sides for what she called "their diligent efforts over the years in the interest of justice." She also ended the virtual hearing with a message to Choy.
"To Frances, Godspeed," Giles said.
Correction: An earlier version of the post indicated Choy was the first woman of color to be exonerated in Massachusetts. There has been at least one other exoneration. The post has been updated.
This article was originally published on September 29, 2020.
This segment aired on September 30, 2020.