Sharon Beckman (Lee Pellegrini)
Boston College Law School Associate Clinical Professor Sharon L. Beckman, faculty director of the Boston College Innocence Program, is among Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s 17 “Lawyers of the Year,” an annual distinction bestowed by the statewide law publication upon a select group of the Commonwealth’s attorneys for significant accomplishments during the previous year.
She was co-honored along with co-counsel John J. Barter for the September 2020 exoneration of their client Frances Choy, whose arson and first-degree murder convictions were vacated based on new evidence of her innocence, including substantiation that someone else confessed to the crime, and scientific proof that contradicted trial testimony of a state police chemist.
“I’ve been involved with other exonerations and there is nothing else like it in the law,” Beckman told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, whose last law professor honoree was Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren. “It is so overwhelming watching someone walk out of prison who was wrongly incarcerated and locked up for 17 years.”
The original charges against Choy stemmed from a 2003 fire in her Brockton home that claimed the lives of her parents, Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam, when she was 17 years old. After the fire, Choy was arrested by Brockton Police, and subjected to three trials before she was eventually convicted in 2011. The first two resulted in mistrials when the jurors could not unanimously agree on a verdict.
Beckman and Barter banded together to work for her exoneration, and a key part of their success was gaining access to emails that showed the trial prosecutors’ racial bias and other exculpatory evidence. The Plymouth County District Attorney’s office ultimately produced those materials, did not oppose Choy’s release from prison, agreed that her convictions should be vacated, and dismissed the charges against her.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, she is the first woman of color to be exonerated in Massachusetts since 1978, and only the nation’s second female Asian-American exoneree.
At the time of court’s decision, Beckman said: “Frances was an innocent crime victim who was instead treated like a criminal suspect. Her wrongful conviction resulted from racism and other official misconduct and systemic failures. She can never get back the years the criminal legal system took from her, but we are overjoyed at her exoneration and hope her case will inspire meaningful reform.”
The BCIP legal team included supervising attorney and Adjunct Professor Charlotte Whitmore, and Sarah Carlow, J.D. ’20, Rachel Feit, J.D. ’20, Jesse Gibbings, J.D. ’19, Annie Lee, J.D. ’19, Eric Jepeal, J.D. ’20, Matthew Sawyer, J.D. ’19, Emily Smith J.D. ’20, and Ye-Eun Sung, J.D. ’22. Assistant Clinical Professor Claire Donohue J.D. ’05, M.S.W. ’05 and Amanda Savadian M.S.W. ’20 provided critical social-service support.
Rounding out Choy’s legal team were Berlindyne Elie ’21 and Carolina Tiru ’20, whose BCIP service placement was part of Professor of Philosophy Marina McCoy’s PULSE Program elective Mass Incarceration: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives.
Beckman described the experience of representing Choy as a “privilege” that was “transformative for students and faculty alike,” and despite “suffering unimaginable loss and injustice, Frances is kind and hopeful, and she does everything in her power to live in a way that would honor her parents.”
"I’ve been involved with other exonerations and there is nothing else like it in the law. It is so overwhelming watching someone walk out of prison who was wrongly incarcerated and locked up for 17 years.
The BCIP, founded by Beckman in 2006, studies the problem of erroneous convictions and works to remedy and prevent these injustices. A 2013 donation fueled the hire of Whitmore and the establishment of the clinic, the legal equivalent of a teaching hospital. Contributions and a federal grant support Whitmore’s critical role, along with two clinical legal fellows, Carlow and Lauren Rossman, J.D. ’19. At any given time, the BCIP represents 10 or more inmates in innocence cases; Choy was one of three clients the program helped free in 2020.
BCIP is also part of a statewide working group of criminal justice stakeholders collaborating to produce a report that will recommend best practices for remedying and preventing wrongful convictions for every district attorney’s office in the state and the Office of the Attorney General.
Beckman, who served as a law clerk to former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, practiced criminal defense and civil rights law in Boston and in Chicago for seven years prior to joining the BC Law faculty in 1996. She has received numerous accolades, including the University Distinguished Teaching Award, BC’s highest teaching honor; the Law School’s Emil Slizewski Award for Faculty Excellence; and the Ruth-Arlene Howe Black Law Students Association Faculty Member of the Year Award.
In a recent Boston College Magazine profile, Beckman revealed that as a child raised in suburban Chicago, she thought coaching swimming would be her eventual vocation, but after reading the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a Southern small-town attorney represents a Black man wrongfully accused of rape, she decided at 11 years old to become a criminal defense attorney. (Swimming has been a big part of her life: While at Harvard, where she co-captained the women’s swimming and diving team, she became the first New England woman to swim the English Channel; she also is a nationally ranked United States Masters swimmer.)
“The book was a complete moral awakening for me of the realities of life in America,” recalled Beckman. “The idea that an innocent person could be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death because of the color of their skin literally shocked me to my core. It was not a thing I had ever thought about before. That was my white privilege.”
Describing the role of a clinical law professor as “essentially a coach for aspiring attorneys,” Beckman said her students provide hope for the future.
“They are the reason the BC Law clinics exist; our students go on to become lawyers, judges and legislators who can improve their clients’ lives and the legal system,” she said, pointing to the four BC Law alumni—Susan Finegan J.D. ’91, Sophia Hall J.D. ’12, John Roddy J.D. ’80, and Elliot Weinstein J.D. ’74—who also are among Lawyers Weekly 2020 “Lawyers of the Year.” “These alumni, honored for their advocacy on behalf of the disempowered in areas ranging from civil rights and racial justice to immigration and environmental justice, lead rewarding careers as women and men for others, and that is the goal.”
Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | February 2021