A judge delayed the arraignment Monday of a Dorchester man accused of firing a gun at police during unrest in downtown Boston, suggesting the officers provided scant evidence that he pulled the trigger.
Around 3 a.m. on Monday, Boston police reported hearing gunfire ring out from the direction of a grey Hyundai that had pulled into an alley off Arlington Street, according to police records filed in court.
Officers allegedly found a semiautomatic firearm in the car. They arrested the four occupants and charged the driver, 37-year-old John Boampong, with numerous gun-related offenses, including armed assault with intent to murder.
But during a hearing conducted by telephone late Monday afternoon, Boston Municipal Court Judge Mark H. Summerville questioned how police determined Boampong was the shooter, based on the observations they recorded in a police report.
“It’s not even in the report that the shots were fired at the officers,” Summerville said. “The only thing that we know is that gunshots were heard, approximately 10 gunshots, coming from the area where that alleged vehicle was.”
Summerville dismissed charges against two occupants of the car and postponed reading most of the charges against Boampong, giving the state a Wednesday deadline to shore up its case.
Boampong was among 53 people arrested after largely peaceful protests against police brutality turned violent Sunday night, sparking clashes and looting at some Downtown Crossing and Back Bay shops. Nine police officers who were on duty during the protests were treated for non-life-threatening injuries at local hospitals and dozens of others were treated for minor injuries in the streets, according to police.
Around the country, thousands have voiced outrage following the death last month of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. The death has since been ruled a homicide and the officer, who was fired, has been charged with third-degree murder.
With state courts still closed in light of the coronavirus pandemic, authorities scheduled a series of telephone arraignments Monday for those arrested in the Boston protests. According to information released by police, half of those who were arrested reside in Boston and nearly all were from Massachusetts, with the exception of two people from Maine.
The average age of the defendants is 26 and they face charges ranging from disorderly conduct to breaking into buildings, receiving stolen goods, assaulting police officers and destroying property.
Ed Maguire, a criminology professor at Arizona State University, who recently authored a book about policing best practices during protests and other large events, said it's fairly common for charges to dropped after mass arrests during a protest. They often unfold in a chaotic setting, and officers might not record details needed for the court paperwork, he said.
“I mean, if you’re arresting a lot of people, you can’t tell the difference between them later on, right?” Maguire said. “So the evidentiary charges can be pretty weak and they end up being dropped.”
Police leveled the most serious charges against Boampong, who was accused of discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building, carrying a loaded firearm, carrying a firearm without a license and failing to stop for police.
In a press release, Boston police reported charging him with six additional counts of armed assault with intent to murder. During Monday’s hearing, a court clerk said Boampong in fact faces 21 counts of armed assault with intent to murder, which corresponds to the number of officers who were allegedly targeted in the shooting.
Reading from a police report, Assistant District Attorney Caitlin Fitzgerald said that, a little after 3 a.m. Monday, members of the police department’s Youth Violence Strike Force were in the area of Arlington and Boylston streets attempting to disperse a crowd of looters when they came into contact with Boampong and others in a grey Hyundai Elantra.
They were “reluctant to follow the officers' repeated instructions to leave the area” and became verbally combative, Fitzgerald said.
“The car then began to go in reverse, jeopardizing the safety of the crowd,” she said. “One officer then used his riot stick and struck the top corner of the windshield to get the driver’s attention.”
The Elantra drove away but later returned, traveling “at a high rate of speed” past officers on Boylston Street, Fitzgerald said. It passed another vehicle and turned into an alley on Providence Street, she said.
“Officers observed that the car had stopped because they could see its brake lights and, moments later, approximately 10 gunshots rang out in rapid succession, coming from the direction of the Elantra,” Fitzgerald said.
Officers took cover until the shooting stopped, then intercepted the Elantra as it came back around the block onto Boylston Street, she said.
Inside, police allegedly found a semiautomatic firearm on the floor in “locked back position,” meaning the clip had been emptied, Fitzgerald said.
“All four occupants admitted to looting from several stores in the area and were placed under arrest,” Fitzgerald said. “The car was towed pending a search warrant, and those are essentially the facts, your honor.”
Prosecutors asked the judge to schedule a dangerousness hearing for Boampong in three days and moved to revoke his bail on an open case out of Brockton District Court.
More on Boston's George Floyd Protests
But Summerville challenged the assistant district attorney, asking for more evidence that Boampong fired the gun, or that police were the intended targets. He also asked pointed questions about the armed assault with intent to murder charges, noting that officers didn’t see anyone get out of the car, or observe who was shooting.
“All that was heard were gunshots,” he said. “We don’t know if those gunshots were actually emanating from that vehicle. We don’t know if those gunshots were shot in the air. We don’t know who, if anyone, in that vehicle actually fired those guns.”
Summerville ordered Boampong held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing on Wednesday. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf on charges of failure to stop for police, carrying a firearm without a license and possession of a loaded firearm.
The judge delayed arraigning Boampong on armed assault with intent to murder and the other remaining charges until the date of the dangerousness hearing.
“The commonwealth has got a lot to show in this dangerousness hearing,” he said.
He took no action on a motion to dismiss the charges from Boampong’s lawyer, which could be presented later this week. He ordered prosecutors to produce witness lists by noon on Tuesday and to present Boampong’s lawyer with all other relevant material, including ballistics evidence or reports of evidence seized from the vehicle.
Makis Antzoulatos, a public defender who was appointed to represent Boampong, told NBC10 his client maintains his innocence.
“It’s too early to comment, but based on the narrative in the police report, we have serious questions about the accuracy of the government’s allegations," he said.