Prosecutors face sanctions after racist emails upended a murder conviction

In what is believed to be a first for the state, a pair of Massachusetts prosecutors face possible sanctions — including the potential loss of their licenses to practice law — over allegations they exchanged racist emails while handling a murder case.

The prosecutors, former Plymouth Assistant District Attorneys John Bradley and Karen O'Sullivan, are also accused of failing to disclose evidence about a witness in the case.

Bradley and O'Sullivan engaged in the alleged misconduct while prosecuting the case of Frances Choy, who was convicted of murder and arson after a 2003 fire that killed her parents in their Brockton home.

Choy served 17 years of a life sentence before her conviction was vacated in 2020 — in part because her attorneys discovered emails sent by the two prosecutors that mocked the Choy family and others, sometimes invoking racist stereotypes about Asians. Defense attorneys also accused the prosecutors of withholding evidence that suggested another member of the Choy family could have had a motive to commit the crime.

Bradley and O'Sullivan face a range of possible sanctions, from a public reprimand to a temporary suspension of their law licenses or even potential disbarment. They have denied any misconduct and argued Choy had a motive to commit the crimes and was convicted of the charges.

Their handling of the murder case is the focus of a multi-day hearing that began last week at the Board of Bar Overseers, which oversees attorney discipline in Massachusetts. In a petition for discipline, attorneys for the Office of Bar Counsel wrote that Choy's criminal convictions were tainted by the prosecutors' "racially offensive, derogatory and unprofessional emails."

Frances Choy was 34 when she was released from prison in 2020 after a judge vacated her conviction. She had been accused of setting her Brockton home on fire and killing her parents in 2003. (Courtesy)
Frances Choy was 34 when she was released from prison in 2020 after a judge vacated her conviction. She had been accused of setting her Brockton home on fire and killing her parents in 2003. (Courtesy)

The petition pointed to court documents vacating Choy's conviction, in which the judge said she would have ordered the prosecutors removed from the case had the emails come to light sooner.

"If this Court were aware of the trial prosecutors’ emails and images demonstrating their anti-Asian bias against the Defendant, her family, and all Asian-Americans, this Court would have declared a mistrial," wrote associate Superior Court judge Linda Giles.

Bradley, in a written response to the petition for discipline, said he was not given an opportunity to defend himself against the accusations. He also alleged the emails were altered to appear racially offensive and pointed to what he said are irregularities, including one email that appeared to have been sent to O'Sullivan's daughter. She was just 7 years old and did not have an email address at the time, Bradley wrote.

Bradley maintains the case against him is politically motivated. In 2017, he sued Plymouth District Attorney Tim Cruz for wrongful termination. The case was settled for $248,000, and Bradley unsuccessfully ran against Cruz for DA the following year. In his response to the disciplinary proceeding, Bradley said this played a role in the Plymouth DA's office agreement that led to the vacated conviction.

"This agreement greatly benefited the Defendant and District Attorney Cruz, who weaponized the agreement as part of a thus-far successful plan to ruin Respondent's career because Respondent had successfully sued DA Cruz in federal court and then, in 2018, Respondent became his political opponent," Bradley wrote.

During the disciplinary hearing, O'Sullivan, who is now co-first assistant district attorney in Bristol County, also disputed the authenticity of some of the emails, but she said others were "a poor attempt at humor" that were not intended to be racially derogatory.

"I had absolutely no racial animus when I sent those emails," O'Sullivan said. "As we sit here today could they be construed as racially offensive? Absolutely. But that was not my intent when I sent those emails."

In addition to the emails, attorneys from the Office of Bar Counsel said the prosecutors failed to notify the defense that another relative, Kenny Choy, who was living with the Choy family, could have had a motive to kill Frances Choy's parents. Her father had reported to police that Kenny had run away and was allegedly selling drugs.

Kenny later testified in the murder trial against Frances Choy. At the time, prosecutors told the jury Kenny was facing drug charges, but in fact, the charges had been dropped.

Bradley has argued that he made an unintentional mistake mentioning the charges during his closing argument, and defense attorneys did not object. He maintains he provided the defense with police reports indicating that Kenny was reported missing and said to be dealing drugs.

The former Plymouth prosecutors have pointed to the jury's guilty verdict in defending their handling of the Choy case. During the trial, they successfully argued that her motive to kill her parents may have been to collect life insurance benefits. They also said she confessed to committing the crime and later recanted. The police interrogation where Choy was said to have confessed was not recorded.

The disciplinary hearings are scheduled to resume next week. Once they're complete, attorneys on both sides can provide written recommendations to the Board of Bar Overseers. The board will then recommend potential sanctions against the attorneys.

Any sanction beyond a public reprimand would have to be approved by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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