Saturday August 17, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A man accused of assaulting a traffic flagger in Bellows Falls in February was acquitted by a jury earlier this month, and four jurors who agreed to speak with the Reformer on the condition they remain anonymous all said they were surprised the state brought the case to trial.

"The testimony of the complaining witness and the prosecution’s witnesses were not believable," said Juror A.

"The only injury to the complaining witness was bloody knuckles," he said, adding when he compared the physical attributes of the defendant, Donato Carrara, and the alleged victim, Morgan Wright, who is a much bigger man than Carrara, he found it hard to believe that the defendant could do what he was accused of.

A second juror agreed.

"The defendant was not a model citizen by any means but he got beaten badly," said Juror B. "To bring assault charges for somebody beaten that badly with no scratches on the other person is just embarrassing."

Richard Ammons, a staff attorney in the Windham County Public Defender’s Office, represented Carrara before the court. Carrara was acquitted of one count of assault and two counts of disorderly conduct. He was arrested on Feb. 26 after the Bellows Falls Police Department received a report of a fight in progress at the intersection of Wells and Atkinson streets.

Lt. Shane Harris, Chief Ron Lake and Cpl. Michael Chesanek responded to the scene, where Wright reported Carrara had attacked him not once but twice. Wright, who was a member of a team directing traffic while a Green Mountain Power crew performed utility pole work, refused medical attention.

Ammons said during the trial Carrara and Wright told differing accounts of the same incident.

"I submit that Mr. Carrara’s account was more credible than that of Mr. Wright and I made an argument in support of that point."

Even though Juror B didn’t totally believe Carrara’s testimony that he never touched Wright, he said "None of it added up. It was an extremely poor case. I didn’t believe at all the witnesses the state put on the stand. The state did a poor job. It was embarrassing. If there was an assault, they did not demonstrate it. I was really unhappy that they brought charges without having the evidence to support the case."

"It was a case we felt needed to be pursued given the defendant’s record and the circumstances of the case," said Deputy State Attorney Steve Brown, who prosecuted the case. "It’s not the first time he’s been involved in an altercation. He has a history of simple assaults, but the jury didn’t get to hear that part."

According to court documents, which were not available to the jury, Carrara, 39, formerly of Bellows Falls, has 14 misdemeanor convictions and 13 assaultive crime convictions stretching back over two decades.

The jury also didn’t hear that Morgan Wright, who is listed as the vice president of Green Mountain Traffic Control, is the son of Deborah Wright, the president of GMTC and a Bellows Falls Village trustee.

Juror C said he got the impression during jury draw the Wright family was probably important in the village.

"Somebody, maybe the defense or the state, asked do you follow Bellows Falls town politics. To me, that said this smacks of politicking and cronyism. That was the impression I had though nothing was said during the trial. I supposed there was something else going on behind the scenes here, but I didn’t know any of the details."

However, said Juror C, he was glad he didn’t know of Carrara’s past criminal convictions or Morgan Wright’s connection to the town.

"I was able to look at both people clearly and with no preconceptions," he said. "I came out feeling the system worked pretty well."

Wright testified Carrara attacked him in two separate incidents just minutes apart. In the first attack, Wright said Carrara head-butted him in the forehead.

"I was stunned," said Juror B. "How can anyone head-butt someone who was wearing a hard hat in the forehead? It discredited (Wright’s) testimony."

In his affidavit to the court detailing the incident, Harris wrote "This office did not observe any visible injury to the victim’s forehead."

In the second alleged attack, Wright told the court Carrara kicked him in the groin by doing a flying leap off of a snow bank before Wright "body slammed" Carrara to the ground and proceeded to beat him. A witness for the prosecution supported Wright’s version and told the court that Carrara attacked Wright and repeatedly hit him.

"We didn’t believe it because Wright didn’t have any injuries except to his hands," said Juror B. "The victim testified how they pulled him off the defendant and then corrected himself and said ‘I mean, they pulled us apart.’"

Juror D also told the Reformer the witnesses for the prosecution, including the alleged victim, were not credible.

"How in the world was the decision ever made to bring this to trial?" she asked.

She said the testimony at times was so conflicting that it was confusing.

"There were just too many questions left unanswered."

"There were contradictions and omissions all over the place, especially on the part of the authorities," said Juror C . "What it comes down to, the state has to prove its case using evidence, and there were a lot of things lacking."

Juror B said there was some testimony that Carrara and Wright knew each other before the altercation on Feb. 26 and were having a dispute over a woman. According to the affidavit filed with the court, Wright told police that Carrara had threatened him in the past and was upset over "a mutual female acquaintance."

Juror B wondered what Wright’s relationship is to the Bellows Falls Police Department.

"He must have been pretty close for them to go after this guy and arrest him at gunpoint and charge him with assault. Maybe the family has political influence."

"As with any investigation, my officers acted professionally and treated all parties with respect," responded Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake, who said he respected the jury’s decision.

"This is our system at work," said Harris. "I respect the jury and its decision."

When requested, Deb Wright submitted a comment to the Reformer about the verdict.

"I am outraged that an employee of Green Mountain Traffic Control can be viciously attacked twice during the same daytime shift while on duty and unable to abandon his post to ensure the safety of the traveling public and our contractor, GMP," she wrote in an e-mail. "Yet through sympathy of appearance and a weak judicial system, be set free to perpetrate this behavior again some time in the future. As a known felon with an extensive criminal history, this is not a stretch of the imagination. Evidently ‘Stand Your Ground’ does not apply to working your job in a public venue."

Ammons told the Reformer that Carrara conducted himself very appropriately on the stand.

"He was respectful of the circumstances that brought him there and fully responsive to all questions, both on direct and cross examination."

Juror D agreed with Ammons’ evaluation of Carrara.

"He was respectful and answered all the questions. There was no posturing and no arrogance."

Juror C said during the jury’s deliberations, "Once we managed to get through our discussion about the presumption of innocence and beyond a reasonable doubt, we were able to come to our conclusion pretty quickly. We were all just shaking our heads."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @ audette.reformer.