(AP) – Defense lawyers are denouncing comments made by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and his attorney general after a jury acquitted a truck driver in the deaths of seven motorcyclists, but both men said Wednesday they stand by their statements.
After a two-week trial, jurors deliberated for less than three hours Tuesday before finding Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, innocent on seven counts of manslaughter, seven counts of negligent homicide and one count of reckless conduct. The charges stemmed from a June 21, 2019, crash in Randolph that killed seven members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Prosecutors argued that Zhukovskyy — who had taken heroin, fentanyl and cocaine earlier on the day of the crash — repeatedly swerved back and forth before the collision and told police he caused it. But a judge dismissed eight charges related to whether he was impaired, and his attorneys blamed the lead biker, Albert “Woody” Mazza Jr., saying he was drunk and not looking where he was going when he lost control of his motorcycle and slid in front of Zhukovskyy’s truck.
After the verdict, Sununu said he shares in the “shock, outrage, and anger that so many have expressed” since the crash.
“The Fallen Seven did not receive justice today, and that is an absolute tragedy,” he said.
Attorney General John Formella said he believes the state proved its case.
“Mr. Zhukovskyy should have been found guilty of the charges in this case and held responsible for causing seven deaths and numerous injuries,” he said. “We thank the Court and the jurors for their service, and while we are extremely disappointed, we respect the verdict and our system of justice.”
The New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense lawyers said Formella’s comments violated professional standards and that both statements criticizing the verdict could deter future jury service.
“These statements are irresponsible, dangerous, disrespectful to the jurors and damaging to the integrity of the criminal legal system,” the group said in a statement. “They are also contrary to rules designed to protect the rights of the accused and protect jurors from undue influence and harassment.”
According to those rules, prosecutors should avoid comments that criticize the jury’s actions or verdict and should “respectfully accept acquittals.” Formella’s spokesman, Michael Garrity, pointed to the last sentence of the attorney general’s statement when asked to respond to the defense lawyers, while Sununu’s spokesman said the governor stands by his comments.
But the defense lawyers said their comments could cause problems for future trials.
“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?” they said. “That our Governor would so loudly put his thumb on the scale is an abuse of his platform and his office. Agree or disagree, the jury here did its job and their decision deserves respect rather than public condemnation.”