Victims of an attack in East Boston that drew national attention in 2020 say they’re disappointed after a judge ruled Thursday that one of the perpetrators, while guilty of assault and battery, was innocent of civil rights violations.
Stephanie M. Armstrong was arrested and charged with assault and battery and civil rights violations in March 2020 after she and a friend, Jenny Leigh Ennamorati, allegedly attacked and shouted racist comments at 46-year-old Sara Vasquez and her then-15-year-old daughter as they were walking home from dinner in Maverick Square. Vasquez and her daughter were speaking Spanish.
During the Feb. 15, 2020, attack, the white women allegedly shouted at Vasquez and her daughter, who are Hispanic, to “speak English” and “go back to your [expletive] country,” the Globe reported in March 2020. Vasquez and her daughter said they were punched, bitten, kicked and had their hair pulled during the altercation, which was captured on surveillance video.
In East Boston Municipal Court on Thursday, just blocks away from where the attack took place, Judge John E. MacDonald sentenced Armstrong to two years of probation for assault and battery after a two-day, non-jury trial. The decision came a few months after Ennamorati took a plea deal in February to serve 15 months of probation, with the possibility of getting her case dismissed if she stays out of trouble.
“I don’t know what to say, to be honest. I’m disappointed,” said Vasquez’s daughter, whose name was excluded because she is a minor. “It feels good to be done, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say this is justice. It can happen again.”
The victims’ attorneys called the court’s dismissal of the civil rights violations disheartening, saying that the incident occurred in a majority-Latino neighborhood where they were “essentially attacked for speaking Spanish.”
“This raises serious concerns in regards to victims accessing justice,” said Mirian Albert, an attorney with the group Lawyers for Civil Rights, which assisted the victims.
“What Ms. Vasquez and her daughter did was not easy,” she added. “Accessing the legal process is very complicated … and on top of that, they had to be re-traumatized through the whole process, only to get a sentence in the end that wasn’t meaningful.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden, whose office prosecuted the case, released a statement shortly after the trial expressing mixed feelings about the result.
“While I’m pleased that this defendant was convicted of physically attacking a mother and daughter out celebrating a birthday, I find it terribly disappointing that she wasn’t also convicted of violating their civil rights,” Hayden wrote. “This unforgivable assault exposed an ugly side of our society that my office—and I hope every caring citizen—will never tolerate.”
Armstrong’s lawyer, William Barabino, said Friday that Armstrong’s acquittal of civil rights violations is in line with her beliefs as a member of the LGBQT+ community.
“Stephanie Armstrong holds her civil rights and the civil rights of others in the highest regard. As a result, she would never do anything to interfere with anyone else’s civil rights and the acquittals of both civil rights violations confirms that,” Barabino said, adding that they “hope the best moving forward for all, including the victims in this case.”
In the wake of the assault and the release of the surveillance video, community activists called for local law enforcement to better respond to hate crime reports, which have risen slightly in Massachusetts over the past few years.
Then-Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins condemned the attack at the time, saying, “Hate and intolerance do not belong in Suffolk County.”
During the hearing Thursday, Armstrong’s lawyer faulted Ennamorati for the attack and argued that Armstrong was trying to break apart the fight, not add to the violence. He also disputed that Armstrong had made racist comments and denied that the assault occurred because of any racist intent.
“What her friend did was inexcusable,” Barabino, Armstrong’s attorney, said during the trial.
Assistant District Attorney Amelia Singh, the prosecutor, argued that because Armstrong did not call 911, otherwise call for help, or pull Ennamorati off the victims, she was at fault, saying in her closing remarks, “This is not self-defense. It’s an act of racial violence.”
Vasquez wrote in a victim impact statement read during the hearing that she and her daughter had suffered severe mental repercussions, in addition to physical wounds, after the incident.
“You took our confidence, you took our dignity and you took my daughter’s innocence,” the statement read. Vasquez went on to describe that her daughter had become more shy, required therapy, and struggled academically following the attack.
Speaking to the Globe after the trial, Vasquez’s daughter had simple words of advice for crime victims in similar situations.
“Be strong and talk,” she said. “Let people know because there can be justice.”
Anjali Huynh was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @anjalihuynh.