Frances Choy Was Wrongfully Incarcerated For 17 Years — Until A Judge Revealed Racial Bias In Her Case
A Chinese-American woman was incarcerated for 17 years in Massachusetts after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her parents. But this month, her charges were vacated after the discovery of new evidence, including racist emails between the two prosecutors indicated they were “biased against Asians.”
Frances Choy was just 17 when she was charged with two counts of murder and one count of arson of a dwelling after a house fire at her Brockton, Massachusetts home killed her parents, Jimmy and Ann Trahn Choy. Frances and her nephew, then-16-year-old Kenneth Choy, were rescued from the home. Frances was tried three times for the crime, with the first two trials resulting in hung juries and the third trial, in 2011, ultimately convicting her on all charges.
Kenneth was charged with murder, as well, but was acquitted in 2008, shortly after Frances’ first mistrial. He testified against Frances, and despite evidence that Kenneth may have been involved in the setting of the fire, Frances’ attorneys didn’t call an expert witness for her trial or interview witnesses about Kenneth’s statements regarding his involvement. Prosecutors also withheld information from Frances’ attorneys about two other fires at the home while Frances was incarcerated. Kenneth went back to his native Hong Kong shortly before Frances' third trial.
But perhaps the biggest bombshell revealed in Plymouth Superior Court judge Linda Giles’ decision to vacate Frances Choy’s conviction is the newly revealed evidence of prosecutorial bias. "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," John Barter, attorney for Frances Choy, said, according to PEOPLE. Barter spent nearly five years trying to get access to the emails, which were released last year after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Plymouth County District Attorney to do so. The DA’s office admitted the emails are “reprehensible” and “horrific.”
"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.
In the emails, then-Plymouth County prosecutors Karen O'Sullivan and John Bradley demonstrated “racial animus towards Frances and her family" (Frances' parents were Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam), sending emails implying Frances had an incestual relationship with her nephew, Kenneth, exchanging images of Asian people “accompanied by pejorative comments,” making jokes about Asian stereotypes, and mocking caricatures of Asian people using broken English.
In one email exchange discussing an upcoming hearing before the state Supreme Judicial Court, one of the prosecutors told the other they would be “wearing a cheongsam and will be the one doing origami in the back of the courtroom.”
According to WBUR, O'Sullivan now works in the Bristol County District Attorney's Office while Bradley left the Plymouth office in 2012 and sued the DA over his termination. Sharon Beckman, a Boston College Law School professor, told the Boston Globe that Choy was “an innocent crime victim who was instead treated like a criminal suspect.”
“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 to the Boston Globe. "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.”
After years in prison and being wrongfully accused of murdering her own parents, Choy is relieved to finally see some justice. "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 honoured them," Frances Choy, now 34, said in a statement provided to WBUR by her lawyers. "I'm relieved that the truth has been revealed and to have my life back beyond prison walls."