Editorial: Too slow a path to justice
In the end, it appears a lack of DNA released Lance Gouvan and Megan Bonny from allegations they used a jump rope to tie a 9-year-old girl enrolled in therapeutic residential program to a tree in a Northampton field in the summer of 2012.
This month, the Northwestern district attorney’s office dropped the charges that remained in the case, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault and battery, exonerating the pair.
In so doing, justice was served. But we believe justice should have been delivered sooner.
It was exactly a year before, on Sept. 12, 2012, that a grand jury refused to indict Gouvan, then 34, and Bonny, then 26, on the more serious charges of attempted murder and kidnapping of a child that prosecutors had put forward when the incident was reported in July 2012.
That could have been a sign to authorities to reexamine the case.
They pursued the remaining assault charges while DNA testing was conducted on a length of rope. Defense lawyers say a lack of DNA evidence connecting Bonny and Gouvan to the allegation made the state’s case crumble.
But, again, what took so long? The case against Gouvan and Bonny was troubling from the start. Prosecutors could never provide a motive for the random attack. Elements of the story just didn’t add up. Authorities said a girl enrolled in the Cutchins Program at the Northampton Center for Children and Families reported being accosted while playing jump rope behind the center’s Pomeroy Terrace location. It was said to have happened while she was briefly unsupervised because an aide was seeking help.
The girl said she was grabbed by the hair, dragged 20 feet and tied to a tree branch high enough that she was forced to stand on her tiptoes. She said the two people, whom she later identified as Gouvan and Bonny, told her they would punch her if she yelled for help. When staff found her tied to the tree, she had no visible marks and required no medical treatment.
Later that day Gouvan and Bonny were arrested, jailed without bail and charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (rope) and two counts of assault and battery.
The director of the Cutchins Program that day expressed surprise at the severity of charges leveled by the district attorney’s office, saying they were inconsistent with his understanding of the incident. That, too, could have been a red flag for authorities.
Fast forward to this month when the DA’s office released this statement: “After a careful review of all available evidence, the commonwealth concluded that it did not reasonably anticipate being able to prove the allegations against Mr. Gouvan and Ms. Bonny beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the termination of these prosecutions was consonant with the interests of justice and with the standards of prosecutorial ethics.”
Would it have been so wrong to say: Gouvan and Bonny are innocent. Or how about: We made a mistake with this prosecution. Or maybe: In our initial charges, we overreached.
While the criminal case against Gouvan and Bonny proceeded, the Cutchins Program launched its own investigation and the state pursued a separate inquiry into the program’s protocol that day.
The program’s director vowed the agency would learn from the incident. A state report released in October 2012 cited a “serious breakdown” in the operations of the program that allowed the girl to be unsupervised. The program revised its policies on supervision and communication for time-outs.
We believe the district attorney’s office could learn from this incident too. We hope it takes a hard look at how the case unfolded. Among the questions worth answering:
Was it an overreach to lodge charges of attempted murder and kidnapping of a child? What was the evidence? Once the grand jury declined to indict on two of the charges, did officials re-examine the evidence to see if it supported lesser charges? Did the fact that the two defendants were living in a tent in the woods have anything to do with what followed? Could these charges have been dropped sooner than they were?
To be sure, a young girl claimed she was assaulted, and the district attorney’s office needed to pursue the case zealously. But throughout these past 14 months, Gouvan had his liberty taken away, living under house arrest with his mother.
When lingering questions on a criminal prosecution mount — especially when somebody’s freedom is at stake, authorities have a duty to resolve them.