Appeals Court Grants Convicted Priest a New Trial Faults Case's Judge and Prosecutors
By Kathleen Burge
October 12, 2002
A priest convicted seven years ago of sexually abusing a boy at a Worcester home for troubled teens was granted a new trial by the state Appeals Court yesterday.
The justices ruled that the 1995 trial of the Rev. Joseph A. Fredette was significantly flawed because the judge didn't question a juror when he first acknowledged having seen a television interview with the boy's mother. The court also faulted the prosecutor for improper comments during closing arguments.
Fredette was convicted of three counts of committing unnatural acts for allegedly abusing the boy in the 1970s.
The priest was acquitted on charges of abusing another boy at the home. Fredette has been free for more than a year, after serving his four- to five-year sentence, said his lawyer, Alan J. Black.
A spokeswoman for Worcester District Attorney John Conte said the case was under review and prosecutors were looking at the possibility of appealing yesterday's decision.
Fredette, now 70, was a founder of Come Alive, a home for troubled teens that he ran for the state Department of Youth Services. He fled to Canada in 1974 to avoid sexual assault charges, prosecutors said, and founded a 240-acre hermitage in rural New Brunswick. Fredette was extradited in 1994.
Yesterday, the boy's mother said that her son, now 46, was traumatized by Fredette's abuse. Her son was placed in the care of "Father Joe" after the boy ran away from home, she said.
"It's been terrible," she said. "He's been in and out of jail. Some people say you can't blame everything he's done on [the abuse]. But it does have a lasting effect on him."
She said she wasn't troubled by the decision overturning his conviction because Fredette has already served his time.
The Appeals Court ruled that Superior Court Judge James P. Donohue erred when a juror wrote him a note saying that he had seen a television interview with the alleged victim's mother but was not influenced by it. Jurors are instructed to ignore media accounts of the trial on which they are sitting.
"Well, as long as he doesn't feel that this is swaying him, then it shouldn't sway him," the judge said.
After the jurors convicted Fredette, Donohue polled them on what they had heard about the television interview. "A bunch of people said they heard that from this one juror," Black said.
The judge denied a request for a mistrial. The Appeals Court ruled that "there was a substantial risk that the jury could take the information provided in [the victim's] mother's interview as strongly reinforcing the Commonwealth's portrayal of [the victim] as a relative innocent whose life of crime could be attributed to the defendant's traumatizing sexual abuse."
A prosecutor also erred in closing arguments by offering an "improper opinion" that was not supported by the evidence during the trial, the Appeals Court ruled.
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