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Vehicular homicide trial of former MASS MoCA director underway in Pittsfield District Court

The vehicular homicide trial of former MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson, seated in the middle chair, is underway in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Assistant District Attorney Stuart Weissman and Thompson's attorney, Timothy Shugrue, are to Thompson's left.
Jill Kaufman
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The vehicular homicide trial of former MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson, seated in the middle chair, is underway in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Assistant District Attorney Stuart Weissman and Thompson's attorney, Timothy Shugrue, are to Thompson's left.

The trial of former MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson began this week in Pittsfield District Court. Thompson is fighting a vehicular homicide charge, in connection with a 2018 collision in North Adams, that killed 49-year-old Steven Fortier, who was driving a motorcycle.

What the jury will determine is, who was at fault for the collision.

On day two of the trial, Massachusetts State Trooper David Sandford, who retired in 2019, took the stand. He participated in the crash investigation.

Assistant District Attorney Stuart Weissman asked Sanford if the investigation team was able to determine the "point of maximum engagement" between Fortier and Thompson's vehicle.

Sanford replied yes. Weissman then asked what investigators determined from their analysis.

Thompson's defense attorney, Timothy Shugrue, repeatedly objected to Weissman's line of questions, to several of the accident photos shown to the jury and to Sanford's testimony about the accident's "field of debris," which included where Fortier's teeth scattered on the ground, after the collision.

Because Thompson moved his vehicle to the side of the road, shortly after the accident (Thompson said in 2018 it was for safety reasons), Sanford said investigators were unable to measure how far the debris was from the exact point of impact between the two vehicles.

At one point, Judge Jennifer Tyne asked the jury to leave and called for a voir dire, sometimes used in court to expose any biases that could preclude jurors from acting impartially.

Weissman then asked Sanford if he measured or checked the angle from the point of maximum engagement of the two vehicles to where the teeth were found, and Sanford replied no.

"Did you take into consideration ... in forming your opinion as to what occurred, where those teeth were as relative to the point of impact?" Weissman asked. Sanford replied yes.

Sanford said the scientific basis for relying on where the teeth were to the point of maximum engagement was Newton's First Law of Motion.

"There can't be a measurement, because [Thompson's car] was moved prior to the [investigation team] arriving there," Sanford said. "There was nothing to measure from."

Sanford stood by his conclusion, that the accident was head-on, implying Thompson was at fault. Shugrue said he believed Sanford was jumping to a conclusion, based on opinion, not science.

The judge apologized to members of Fortier's family, who were in the courtroom, for having to hear extensive testimony about the accident's moment of impact.

North Adams Police determined that the night of the accident, Fortier had been at several bars; he had a blood alcohol level of .27, which law enforcement considers high, at the time of his death.

According to the Berkshire Eagle Wednesday the defense will call its own crash reconstruction expert and a toxicologist.

Thompson is also expected to take the stand in his own defense. Jodi Joseph, who was MASS MoCA's communications director in 2018 and in the passenger seat during the crash, is also expected to testify.

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.
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