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Our Opinion: Conclusion of Thompson trial leaves a lingering question — why was this ordeal necessary?

Mass MoCA founding director Joseph Thompson found not guilty of motor vehicle homicide

When the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty last week, the trial of Joseph Thompson came to a close. Still, we join many in the Berkshire community in raising a serious question with whether justice was served in the handling of this case: Why was this four-year-long, high-profile ordeal even necessary?

It is undisputed that Mr. Thompson, the founding director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of The Eagle’s advisory board, collided with a motorcyclist on July 20, 2018, and the motorcyclist died as a result of the crash. Shortly, after the accident, Mr. Thompson was charged with motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation. While he maintained his innocence, he cooperated fully with the subsequent investigation. Mr. Thompson and his passenger explained that while driving on Church Street in North Adams, the motorcycle made an extra-wide right turn onto Church Street, putting the motorcycle in Mr. Thompson’s lane. Mr. Thompson saw the bike coming at his car and made an instinctual evasive move to his left. Unfortunately, the motorcyclist tried to correct for his driving by moving back into the proper lane.

In an instant, the deadly collision occurred. Medical records showed that the motorcyclist was under the influence of alcohol, as his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit. From the beginning, Mr. Thompson said he had had nothing alcoholic to drink that evening, and there was no evidence to the contrary. All of the above was known within weeks, if not days, of the accident, but it took more than four years for case to be tried. After a three-day trial, the jury found Mr. Thompson not guilty after deliberating for two hours. If there were ever an instance that should prompt some common-sense prosecutorial discretion, it should have been this one. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office produced little, if any, evidence that questioned anything Mr. Thompson and his passenger claimed from day one. The prosecution should have known the evidence it had against Mr. Thompson was not sufficient to convince a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So why wasn’t this case dropped?

The DA’s Office had far more time than usual to build or drop this particular case. One big delay was the COVID-19 pandemic halting all jury trials for about a year. Earlier this year, another accident further delayed the trial when a bus carrying jurors to view the accident scene crashed en route.

Throughout, Mr. Thompson faced arguably needless burden — tangible and otherwise. For years, he endured the mental and emotional weight of a serious charge hanging over him and his loved ones, as well as the fact that his license and driving privileges were revoked for more than four years while the case was pending. Then, of course, there was the unnecessary delay of closure for the family of the North Adams man who died in the accident, which Mr. Thompson admirably highlighted after the not guilty verdict was delivered.

As he pointed out in his generous post-verdict comments, Mr. Thompson is a man of means. He has access to resources many others don’t — financial stability, expensive legal experts and representation, a life that is merely upended by such a trial instead of potentially destroyed. What if someone without those resources had been subjected to such a seemingly unnecessary years-long case?

How can the Berkshire DA’s Office defend the prosecutorial discretion of devoting finite bandwidth and resources to this case given its questionable track record of dropping other cases with far more direct implications for public safety? Further, it’s worth noting that another Northern Berkshire case involving a years-old crash has languished while the DA’s Office focused on bringing the Thompson case to trial. In October 2019, a North Adams father of three died in a Cheshire accident that was allegedly caused by two Adams men racing on Route 8, according to a State Police report. It took more than two years just to see charges brought in that case, an inexplicable delay that prompted the crash victim’s daughter to criticize the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office for the sluggish grinding of the gears we trust to bring justice to families like hers.

Meanwhile, the gears of justice turned slowly for Mr. Thompson as well — in a case that by all lights should have been dropped long ago. We entrust our county’s chief prosecutor with immense discretion. The failure of the Berkshire DA’s Office to use that discretion here only exemplifies its importance.

To Mr. Thompson’s credit, the dignified disposition he maintained through his trial continued into its aftermath, when he had the decency and compassion to note that the “ultimate victim” of this situation is not him but the young boy who lost his father on a tragic July night four years ago.

Mr. Thompson’s composure throughout this excessively long process is worthy of praise, even if his privilege uniquely equipped him to endure this ordeal. More importantly, though, that ordeal is worth highlighting as something our justice system should have spared him or anyone else in such a situation.

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