Judge rules vehicular manslaughter case against Mass MoCA director to continue

Joe Thompson

NORTH ADAMS — The vehicular homicide case against Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Director Joe Thompson will continue following a judge's ruling.

Judge Paul Vrabel has denied a motion to dismiss the case against Thompson filed by his attorney, Timothy Shugrue. Oral arguments on the motion were heard on Jan. 31 in Northern Berkshire District Court.

Shugrue argued there was not enough probable cause to warrant the charges against Thompson in connection with the July, 20, 2018, crash in which motorcyclist Steven Fortier was killed.

Thompson, 61, told police he was driving north on Church Street shortly after 10 p.m. when he saw a single headlight coming toward him around the bend where Ashland Street merges with Church Street. He said he veered into the opposite lane but couldn't avoid the collision.

Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Stuart Weissman said the state believes Thompson's vehicle was traveling in the wrong lane before the collision. He said physical evidence, including the position of Fortier's body and the position of his motorcycle and other debris, support the state's theory.

But Shugrue argued that Fortier, 49, was driving his motorcycle at a high rate of speed and drifted into Thompson's lane after failing to negotiate a curve. Thompson had no alternative but to swerve left to avoid the collision, the attorney said.

Shugrue said Fortier apparently tried to correct his course and struck Thompson's vehicle on its passenger side.

Vrabel did note the state's case doesn't contain any of the usual indicators of negligence it would normally rely upon to bring a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide.

According to Vrabel's 16-page ruling, there is no evidence Thompson was speeding, intoxicated, operating erratically nor distracted in some way.

The evidence, Vrabel said, "establishes that (Thompson) remained at the accident scene and cooperated completely with the police during their investigation."

While there is no evidence Thompson was intoxicated, both legal teams have stipulated Fortier had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.28, more than three times the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts.

Vrabel said that the evidence presented during a show-cause hearing in the case showed Thompson committed the marked lanes violation with which he's charged.

"As far as the court can glean ... this marked lanes violation is the only evidence of negligence relied upon by the North Adams Police Department," he said.

Vrabel said while the alleged violation was only some evidence of negligence it was enough to satisfy the "very low standard" of probable cause of negligence.

The higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt would be applied by a jury at trial.

The case is tentatively scheduled for trial in May.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.