An Unjust Conclusion

When 46-year-old Christa Worthington was found stabbed to death in her Truro home in 2002, it stunned the tony Cape Cod village and quickly grew into one of the most spectacular homicide cases in state history—a made-for-cable-news tale of an heiress fashion writer and her fisherman lover, illicit sex and an out-of-wedlock child. Three years passed, though, before a suspect was finally charged: a 33-year-old black man named Christopher M. McCowen, a local garbage collector. And last November, after eight days of deliberations, a jury brought the high-profile case to a shocking end by convicting McCowen of Worthington’s rape and murder.

Among those in Barnstable County Superior Court that day was longtime Cape resident and acclaimed writer Peter Manso, who had followed the trial from the beginning. During nearly a month of testimony Manso had seen the defense chip away at the state’s case—the contaminated crime scene, the spotty crime lab testing—and when the verdict was read he heard gasps from hard-bitten reporters in the balcony. How could this be? Had the jury heard the same case as the people who had watched the trial day by day?

Some hints soon came in the form of affidavits from three of the 12 jurors, alleging racial bias among their counterparts. For Manso, this was an unprecedented opportunity to go behind the scenes of the trial, even into the jury room itself. He spoke with two of the dissident jurors and, in the Boston magazine exclusive, “An Unjust Conclusion,” relates their account of a jury riddled with conflicts and prejudice—a jury that, they charge, was never going to give a black man the benefit of the doubt.

The most vocal of the three dissidents, Roshena Bohanna, was the only black juror. There was another dark-skinned juror, which seemingly lent the jury a 17 percent black cast (impressive representation, given the Cape’s black population of 1.7 percent), but according to Bohanna’s affidavit this juror soon made it clear he was hardly the defendant’s peer. Asked his race, he replied almost disdainfully, “Cape Verdean,” Bohanna recalls. “Not black. Most of my family is white. I was brought up mainly by white people.”

The perception of McCowen as a “big black guy” who directed “intimidating” glares at the jury was to become a theme. The dissident jurors testify that, a day before deliberations began, a middle-aged white juror remarked, “Guys, the defendant looked at me. He scares me.” When asked why, she answered, “I don’t know—he’s this big black guy, you know. He frightens me.”

The affidavits point to an even more egregious example of bias. While trying to convince other jurors that Worthington had been bruised during a struggle, Bohanna recalled, a white woman had claimed, “Yes, if this big black man beat this lady the way they said, she would have these same marks—”
“What the hell does black got to do with it?” Bohanna had interrupted, setting off a yelling match and forcing the jury foreman to call a break. (On another occasion, the jurors’ shouting grew so loud that windows had to be closed so the “F— you”s couldn’t be heard on the courthouse steps or in the parking lot.)

An unequivocally racist remark might have brought into question the fairness of the jury, but the majority’s reasoning remained vague throughout deliberations. They kept repeating, “What are the chances of this guy having sex with her?” or, “She wouldn’t have sex with him while her daughter was home,” according to the jurors Manso interviewed.

The balance of power on the jury shifted on day six, when one of the jurors holding out against the majority was dismissed and an alternate called in, a sixtysomething retiree with a warm, grandmotherly look. But the newcomer turned out to be pushy, self-assured; she waved off the need to review the previous days’ deliberations. Her mind “was already made up,” concluded one of the dissidents.

Bohanna, in particular, felt the weight of the majority opinion in the jury room. “They weren’t pressuring [anyone else] like they were pressuring me,” she told Manso. Shortly after the jury went into sequestration, Bohanna had to be rushed to a dental surgeon for a dislodged crown: She had been grinding her teeth incessantly.

The dissident jurors also related behavior that seemed downright bizarre for people deciding the life sentence of someone charged with murder. A member of the majority clique had a bailiff take photos of the jury posing as if they were on a vacation. After delivering the verdict, one of the female jurors began repeating, “Cha-ching, cha-ching”—this was another O.J. trial, she explained, and they were going to cash in. And one member even suggested they mark the end of the trial by watching the classic 1957 film about a deadlocked, prejudice-riddled jury, 12 Angry Men—apparently forgetting that, in the movie, the defendant goes free.

Though the affidavits and interviews, and bolstered by the author’s additional reporting, “An Unjust Conclusion” takes readers into the crucible of the Worthington jury’s deliberations, deadlock, and ultimate verdict. In the end, it also raises some troubling questions. What if one of the dissident jurors had not been removed midway through deliberations? Why did Bohanna and her remaining ally stop struggling against the majority, when they might have succeeding in forcing a hung jury? Was justice served—and if not, who was to blame?