Defense lawyers group says Sununu, AG comments on Zhukovskyy acquittal could sway future jurors

·3 min read

Aug. 10—The state association of criminal defense attorneys raised concerns that statements from the governor and New Hampshire's top law enforcement officer decrying Tuesday's verdict in the Randolph motorcycle crash case could improperly influence juries in the future.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Coos County jury acquitted Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, of all 15 charges — including manslaughter and negligent homicide — stemming from the 2019 motorcycle crash that killed seven.

After the jury read the verdict in the high-profile case, Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General John Formella both criticized the acquittal.

"The fallen seven did not receive justice today, and that is an absolute tragedy," Sununu's statement read, referring to the seven motorcyclists who died in the crash.

Before thanking the jurors, Formella stated Zhukovskyy "should have been found guilty," and said he believed prosecutors proved their case "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Those statements could impact other juries, wrote Robin Melone, president New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She said the statements were "irresponsible, dangerous, disrespectful to the jurors and damaging to the integrity of the criminal legal system."

Michael Garrity, a spokesman for Formella, said part of the attorney general's statement did say he respected the verdict and thanked the jurors.

Sununu stands by his statement, spokesman Ben Vihstadt said via email Wednesday.

Melone said the statements went beyond expressing sympathy with the victims of the crash and wound up criticizing the Coos County citizens who served on the jury.

"The Governor and the Attorney General's statements here have expressly criticized these jurors' actions in a way that could adversely influence not only these particular jurors' future jury service, but could adversely influence other potential future jurors throughout the state," Melone wrote.

The statements could open jurors to influence and even harassment and weaken the presumption of innocence that people accused of crimes are meant to have, she worte.

"Must our jurors fear public excoriation by the governor and chief law enforcement officer if they find (as jurors did here) that the State failed to meet its burden?"

Melone said Formella's statement went outside the American Bar Association's standards that expect prosecutors, like Formella, to "respectfully accept acquittals" and not criticize the jury's actions or verdict.

"Neither AG Formella nor Governor Sununu saw and heard the evidence as the jury did. They did not deliberate having heard the Judge's instructions," Melone wrote.

"And they have no right, in their positions of power and responsibility, to assert that their opinion, rather that of the fully informed jury, is the correct one," she said.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for ACLU New Hampshire, said the attorney general's criticism of the verdict "conflicts with the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Standards for the Prosecution, which state that a prosecutor should avoid comments 'that criticize the jury's actions or verdict.'

"These Standards are vital, as they help ensure that future juries are independent without undue pressure from prosecutors that could influence their decisions," Bissonnette said in a statement.

"The constitutional right to a jury of one's peers is a bedrock part of the American criminal justice system, and the work a jury does should not be criticized by prosecutors simply because of disagreement with a verdict in a high-profile case."

jgrove@unionleader.com