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MASS MoCA former director Joseph Thompson found not guilty of vehicular homicide

Joseph Thompson, former MASS MoCA director (seated), seen in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, court on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Thompson was found not guilty, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022,  of vehicular homicide, after a 2018 collision that resulted in the the death of Steven Fortier.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Joseph Thompson, former MASS MoCA director (seated), seen in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, court on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Thompson was found not guilty, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, of vehicular homicide, after a 2018 collision that resulted in the the death of Steven Fortier.

Joseph Thompson, the founding director of MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, has been found not guilty of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, The Berkshire Eagle first reported on Thursday.

Thompson had pleaded not guilty to a single count of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, a misdemeanor charge that was filed against him in June 2019, in connection with a 2018 collision in North Adams that killed 49-year-old Steven Fortier, who was driving a motorcycle.

The six-person jury returned a verdict at noon Thursday after less than two hours of deliberation.

The evidence supporting Thompson was “very compelling,” said defense attorney Timothy Shugrue.

The jury saw damage to Thompson's car. They heard about Fortier's drinking before he got on his motorcycle. A toxicologist testified Fortier had blood alcohol content three times the legal limit.

Thompson testified that, on the night of the accident, Fortier initially crossed into Thompson's lane, driving in the opposite direction.

“[This] was consistent with what Mr. Thompson said since day one,” Shugrue said, “that he was driving down the road, not consuming alcohol, not on the phone, radio's turned down, just talking, and all of a sudden a motorcycle ended up in his lane as he crested a hill.

Thompson was charged with vehicular homicide about six months after the accident, by then-newly elected Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington.

Shugrue recently defeated Harrington in the Democratic primary and is expected to become the county’s next DA.

Amanda Burke, a reporter with The Berkshire Eagle, who was in the courtroom all week, said while the state's position was that Thompson was in the wrong lane, Thompson testified he was only in that lane to avoid Fortier on his motorcycle.

“Thompson said, ‘Look — this all happened fast. I was sober. I was paying attention to the road. I encountered something unexpected which was Steven Fortier in my lane traveling toward me,’” Burke said, paraphrasing Thompson's testimony.

Thompson testified that he made an intuitive decision to jerk the wheel to the left, perceiving the motorcycle to be coming on his right, but Fortier then went back into his original lane and hit Thompson's SUV.

Shelley Demyer, the mother of Fortier’s 5-year-old son, left the courtroom right after the verdict was announced, Burke said. During jury deliberations, Demyer told Burke the testimony had been “tough to listen to.”

Thompson had his license suspended when he was first charged with vehicular homicide in 2019. He is expected to get it back Friday, Shugrue said.

Updated: September 23, 2022 at 11:48 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include comment from Thompson's attorney and a reporter from The Berkshire Eagle who covered the trial.
Jill has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing The Connection with Christopher Lydon, Morning Edition, reporting and hosting. In the months leading up to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show The Exchange. Right before coming to NEPM, Jill was an editor at PRX's The World.