Frances Choy confessed at least three times to murdering her parents. An accomplice also told the police that she was guilty. Forensic evidence tied her to the crime. Yet the New York Times published a story painting her as a victim of a wrongful conviction. Buzzfeed News wrote that Frances Choy was “exonerated.” So does Boston.com. The Boston College Chronicle described her as “cleared.” The Milford Daily news headline is “The Truth Has Been Revealed.” What happened?
In April of 2003, the Frances Choy was a high school senior living with her parents and her nephew, Kenneth Choy. (Choy v. Com. (2010) 456 Mass. 146.) Early one morning she called 911 to report a fire in her home. Firefighters arrived and rescued Frances and Kenneth Choy. Frances did not appear upset and displayed no visible signs of injury. Firefighters went back in the house to rescue Frances Choy’s parents. They were hospitalized and each died that day as a result of smoke inhalation and burns. Expert testimony from Sergeant Jeanne Stewart, a State police fire investigator, indicated that the fire was set intentionally and appeared to be designed to spread toward the parent’s bedroom. Additionally, fire investigators found gasoline throughout the house and on the defendant’s sweatpants.
Frances Choy confessed to the crime to several different people. A State police sergeant testified that Choy told him that she resented her parents because they prevented her from spending time with her boy friend, assigned her extensive chores, and planned to force her to live at home when she entered college. Additionally, she told the officer that she believed she was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy purchased by her parents. Another police officer testified that on two occasions the defendant admitted that she planned the fire and placed containers of gasoline throughout the house, but on both occasions she immediately retracted her statement.
Kenneth Choy also admitted that Frances was guilty. Police found handwritten notes by Kenneth Choy in his bedroom after the fire. They contained a step-by-step checklist on how to set the house of fire. He spoke to the police as well. He told police that he made the notes at the defendant’s request as part of a joint plan to set fire to their home.
The Conviction and Appeals
Frances Choy was tried twice; both trials ended in hung juries. She was tried a third time an convicted of murder and arson charges in 2011. Kenneth Choi was tried in 2008 and found not guilty. At trial, he claimed that the fire was Frances Choy’s idea.
Ms. Choy continued to appeal her conviction. She hired new lawyers. They hired an expert to testify that there was actually no gasoline on Ms. Choy’s sweatpants, in contrast to a police expert who testified that there was. They found a friend of Kenneth Choy’s who they claimed would testify that Kenneth Choy was more involved than he claimed. In September 2020, a judge vacated the 2011 convictions.
The appeal was vacated on two grounds. First, Frances Choy’s lawyers “uncovered” evidence that Kenneth Choy had worked alone and then blamed Frances Choy. Second, the lawyers uncovered evidence of emails by prosecutors that were racially offensive. They contained pictures of Asian people accompanied by pejorative comments. They also contained jokes about Asian stereotypes. For example, one of the emails compared Kenneth Choy to a character from the movie “Sixteen Candles.”
During her appeal, the prosecutor’s office filed a motion saying he would not prosecute the case further. The New York Times described that decision in this way: “With that motion, Ms. Choy was officially exonerated and freed after 17 years in detention, according to her lawyers” from the Boston College Innocence Program. Incredibly, Ms. Choy, 34, thanked her lawyers, her family and her friends “for always believing in my innocence.”
Police have no other suspects. No was has explained who set the fire, if Frances and Kenneth did not.
Having Your Case Dropped is Not “Exoneration”
When a jury acquits you, they are not finding that you are innocent. The jury simply finds that the evidence did not prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s why the verdict is called a “not guilty” verdict, not an “innocent” verdict. You may still be guilty by clear and convincing evidence even if you are not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Acquitted defendants are not innocent.
In this case, the prosecutor’s office declined to try Ms. Choy a fourth time. This is also not a court finding that Ms. Choy is innocent. Prosecutor’s decline to prosecute for many reasons, such as a lack of evidence, the fact that the defendant is serving a long term on another case, or even the fact that staff are not available to prosecute the case. None of these are an innocence finding.
This is Criminal Law 101, but many news outlets consistently make this mistake. It’s much worse when lawyers do this. Ms. Choy’s lawyers, who are law professors, know the difference between “not guilty” and “innocent.” Yet they still went around the national media puffing themselves up by claiming that this was an exoneration. It wasn’t.
Misconduct Unrelated to a Case Should Not Be Grounds For Overturning the Case
Prosecutors should not send racist emails about their cases. There’s no excuse for that. The prosecutors who did that in Frances Choy’s case were out of line and should have faced consequences. Those consequences can and should include reprimands at work and even from the Massachusetts State Bar. We should stand by our principles that the fair administration of justice means that people in the justice system should be accountable for their misconduct.
But we need to remember an important fact. None of the misconduct by prosecutors in this case had any bearing on whether or not Frances Choy was guilty. A racist email is not the same thing as framing someone for murder. A racist joke is not right, but it does not change the strength of the evidence in court. In this case, a judge took what should be a personnel issue, got herself involved, and used it to overturn a jury’s decision. The judge did this even though there was no showing that the emails in this case affected the trial at all. As far as I can tell, no one explained how the emails translated into an unfair trial for Frances Choy. Why would you overturn a jury conviction because of misconduct that didn’t affect the fairness of the trial?
Imagine that you were a relative of Frances Choy’s parents. Imagine that you were someone that loved Frances Choy’s parents. Their names were Anne and Jimmy. They burned to death. You would want justice. You would want the person that burned them to be held accountable. You learn that the two teenagers are the only suspects, that one has confessed several times, and that the other had notes with arson instructions written on them. You watch as the prosecutors work hard, over the course of three trials, and eventually secure a conviction.
Then, a judge comes along, 17 years after the crimes, and decides to punish the prosecutor’s office for their racist emails, by robbing you of the justice you waited for. How is that fair to you? How is that fair to any one of us that want Anne and Jimmy’s death to mean something?