BARNSTABLE — A judge last Friday denied a new trial for a black garbage
man convicted in the murder of a white fashion writer, rejecting a
defense claim that the jury’s verdict was tainted by racism.
Christopher McCowen was convicted in the 2002 rape and stabbing of Christa Worthington, who had covered fashion in New York and Paris before moving to the small Cape Cod town of Truro.
After McCowen’s trial in November 2006, three jurors complained that several other jurors made racially charged remarks about McCowen and blacks in general during deliberations.
But Judge Gary Nickerson ruled that McCowen’s defense had failed to prove that the comments indicated a racial prejudice on the part of those jurors, or that the other jurors were exposed to racial bias as they decided McCowen’s fate.
McCowen’s attorney, Robert George, said he will appeal.
“I am not surprised at the trial court’s decision because I always knew that the misconduct in this case and the errors at trial would need to be corrected at a higher level,” George said.
“A reading of the judge’s opinion would leave one with the impression that it is a wholesale endorsement of the wrongdoing in this case, and that anyone who spoke out for the defense and against the verdict is not to be believed,” George said.
Prosecutor Michael O’Keefe praised the ruling and said the jury was unfairly characterized as racist.
“These jurors were held up to a kind of ridicule that the courts have for years tried to prevent, and rather than being ridiculed, these jurors should be commended for having done their duty to their community,” O’Keefe said.
After receiving sworn affidavits from the complaining jurors, Nickerson took the unusual step of ordering the entire jury back to court. In January, he questioned jurors in open court about remarks made in the jury room.
During the hearing, several jurors told Nickerson that two white jurors made biased remarks about McCowen and his race.
Roshena Bohanna, who is black, told the judge that two white women on the panel referred to the defendant as a “big black guy” and said they were afraid of him.
Bohanna said one white juror, in trying to convince fellow jurors that McCowen had caused the bruises on Worthington’s body, said, “If a big black man hits a woman, then she gets those bruises.”
Juror Eric Gomes, a dark-skinned man of Cape Verdean descent, was accused of telling another juror that he had been raised by white people and that he did not like blacks and “what they are capable of.”
During the hearing, the jurors accused of making the racially biased remarks denied them or said they were misquoted or taken out of context. One white female juror told the judge that Bohanna accused all the white jurors of being racists and called one a “cracker.”
Bohanna’s lawyer, James Dilday, said she was disappointed by the judge’s decision.
“I just can’t believe that he would not grant a new trial because the evidence just seemed overwhelming — in my opinion — that the jury verdict was tainted by information other than the facts presented at the trial,” Dilday said.
Race permeated the case from the beginning. In his opening statement to the jury, George said authorities focusing on McCowen as a murder suspect because they assumed that Worthington — a Vassar-educated, sophisticated white woman — would not have had consensual sex with a black garbage man.