Big Dan’s rape trial impact still felt today

Jay Pateakos

In the same courtroom where two of the six defendants in what became known as the Big Dan’s rape trial once stood, 10 of the key participants in the case reflected on the 25-year-old trail that sent shockwaves through a community that can still be felt today.

Big Dan’s Symposium moderator and Superior Court Judge Lloyd Macdonald on Thursday said it became apparent early on when talking about monumental trials — part of the year-long 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of Massachusetts Superior Court — what kind of place the Big Dan’s trial held in the collective minds of the community.

“There were people who approached me and suggested that we not take on this case, that the wounds had still not healed, that the people had yet to recover from this case, that it was too depressing,” said Macdonald. “I was confident that if this was approached properly, that we could be free to reaffirm the bonds that helped to hold the community together in the SouthCoast.”

Big Dan’s presiding Judge William Young, now a U.S. District Court Judge, said as important as it is to have gathered many of the trials defense attorneys, prosecutors, court officers and translators, there was one noticeable group — arguably the most important — that were not present: the juries.

Young said the jury affected the case the most. While praising prosecutors and defendants for their work on the trial, he was particularly hard on himself and some of the decisions he made.

The trial was split into two simultaneous ones — one that ran in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Young said he thought it was the perfect plan for the trials until the second day, when he realized it was a mistake logistically and too far along to change.

His second and clearly deeper-felt criticism came in that the 21-year-old rape victim’s name — Cheryl Ann Araujo — was revealed in the first place.

“I regret to this day that I allowed the victim’s name to be known. I could have prevented it. There was a delay in television, I could have put it in my order and, quite candidly, it never occurred to me,” said Young. “This person was horribly brutalized by the fact of rape and on the very first day of the trial her name was out.”

But others praised Young for his leadership, communication and firm hand in trials besieged by national and international press.

“I remember being in this courtroom that very first day where there was something underhanded in the room. You could feel the anger, and I wondered if I would even be able to get through the trial,” said Big Dan’s prosecutor and current Superior Court Judge Robert Kane.

“But that day, he (Young) gave a face to justice in the court in those first few minutes and you started to listen to his words and you realized this is a court, this is a jury and that people will have the opportunity for a fair and impartial trial.”

Louis Coffin, now a Falmouth Juvenile Court Judge, was one of only two attorneys whose clients were acquitted on the charges that he stood by and allowed the rape to happen.

Coffin recalled the day he ran into Gerlinda Lowe, Director of the Bristol County Bar Advocates on the streets of New Bedford. She asked Coffin if he was interested in taking on another case — one that turned out to be his biggest.

“After the verdicts, on that Thursday, was the happiest day for me when I came home and my family had a welcome home dad sign on the wall,” said Coffin of the trial that took up a year of his life.

“I returned to the office on Monday morning and erased all the messages from Good Morning America and other news outlets and just started a new day.”

Interpreter Zita Lovett (Amaral) recalled the stresses of being the translator for the two trials at one time and the tension that could be felt in the Portuguese community over the case.

“Part of the community outrage was very disconcerting, because after all, I am a Portuguese-American. But I tried to concentrate on what I was doing while the nation watched two trials at once,” said Lovett. “I was proud to be part of a fair trial and proud to have a front-row seat, in two languages.”

Chief of Security Peter Cordeiro spoke of the difficulties dealing with the day-to-day operations of the two trials while trying to maintain two 16-person sequestered juries housed in Brockton and not allowed contact with families or to watch television or read the newspaper for more than a month.

“The cost of the trial at the time came to $250,000, which was a lot at the time. But I felt it was money well spent, even though people felt we could never pull it off,” said Cordeiro. “We were just glad to get through it.”

Defense Attorney Kenneth Sullivan refuted claims that the people on trial were convicted due to their Portuguese descent.

“There was no semblance of prejudice of any kind in this court,” Sullivan said.

Judge Young reminded the symposium audience that one of the facts overlooked in the case was that the rape victim was also from Portuguese descent and that most of the trial participants and jurors were also Portuguese.

“The jury got this right. The four people who touched her, who raped her, were convicted,” said Young. “The two that did not were acquitted, found not guilty. They got it right.”

E-mail Jay Pateakos atjpateakos@heraldnews.com.