A Brockton woman who was convicted of arson and the murder of her parents in 2011 was freed Tuesday after Plymouth County prosecutors dropped the charges, making her the first Asian-American in Massachusetts to be exonerated for crimes she didn’t commit, her lawyers said.
Frances Choy was incarcerated for 17 years following her arrest at age 17 on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson in the 2003 Brockton housefire that killed her parents. She was tried three times, with the first two ending in mistrials, according to legal filings.
Superior Court Judge Linda Giles, who presided over the third trial in 2011 and sentenced Choy to two life sentences, vacated Choy’s convictions on Sept. 17.
Giles made her ruling based on evidence that prosecutors in the case were racially biased against her, that her nephew had confessed to the crimes, and that her attorney failed to pursue leads that could have exonerated her, according to court filings.
Choy, a daughter of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam, was represented on her appeal by an attorney for the Boston College Innocence Program at Boston College Law School and an attorney in private practice.
Sharon Beckman, a Boston College Law School professor, said Choy was “an innocent crime victim who was instead treated like a criminal suspect.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed a nolle prosequi in the case, a formal notice that they would not pursue the charges against Choy.
“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," Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said in a statement. "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.”
Choy’s parents, Jimmy and Ann Trahn Choy, died following a fire on April 17, 2003. according to court filings.
Kenneth Choy, Jimmy Choy’s grandson from a previous relationship who was then 16 and living at the Brockton home, allegedly told a friend that he planned and set the housefire to get revenge, according to court documents. Jimmy Choy allegedly beat and verbally abused his grandson, whom he suspected of dealing drugs, documents show.
Kenneth Choy was later charged with two counts of murder but was acquitted in 2008, a month after the first mistrial in Frances Choy’s case. Kenneth Choy testified that the fire was Frances Choy’s scheme and he had backed out, according to court records.
He later fled to his native Hong Kong shortly before Frances Choy’s third trial began in 2011, court documents show.
In her order vacating the convictions, Giles detailed a long list of issues with the case, including misconduct by prosecutors and a failure of Choy’s attorney to pursue leads and recruit an expert witness.
Prosecutors in the case exchanged e-mails, discovered later, that included numerous racist jokes about Asians, including references to a stereotypical character in the movie “Sixteen Candles,” Giles said.
“The trial prosecutors exchanged numerous images of Asian people, some accompanied by pejorative comments, and some unexplained,” Giles wrote. “They exchanged ‘jokes’ about Asian stereotypes, and mocking caricatures of Asians using imperfect English.”
In one exchange discussing a hearing before the state Supreme Judicial Court, a prosecutor told a colleague she would be “wearing a cheongsam and will be the one doing origami in the back of the courtroom,” Giles wrote.
The Plymouth district attorney’s office acknowledged that the e-mails “are reprehensible,” Giles wrote. She added that Cruz “has taken steps to provide training that is intended to increase awareness of conscious and unconscious bias and to ensure that his professional staff adheres to the highest professional and ethical standards.”
Choy’s own attorney failed to provide a chemist as an expert witness, a move that could have cast serious doubt about claims there was gasoline residue on her pants in the fire’s aftermath, and failed to interview the friend to whom Kenneth Choy confessed, Giles wrote.
Kenneth Choy was also suspected of setting subsequent fires in the home while Frances Choy was incarcerated, a fact that prosecutors did not share with her attorneys, according to Giles.
When prosecutors learned in 2009 that someone had set two more fires at the Choy home after Kenneth Choy was acquitted and released from the county jail, one wrote in an e-mail to her colleague, “I think you should just [drop] Frances’s case right now.”
Beckman said Frances 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.”
John J. Barter, another attorney for Choy, said he was “pleased that Frances is exonerated and home with her family” and expressed gratitude for the district attorney’s office’s cooperation.
“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,” Barter said in the statement.