Initially, I was stunned.
It was one of those: “I remember where I was” moments that we occasionally have that knocks the wind right out of our sails. And like most of you who are members of the Nantucket community, this one will leave a dent.
With Nantucket District Court clerk magistrate Don Hart opting not to issue a criminal complaint against Michael Holdgate stemming from the vehicular destruction of the Main Street fountain last October, I had to read the Current’s breaking story on Thursday twice because it couldn’t be true.
But, it was.
Some people vented on social media. Many shook their heads in disgust while others simply chalked it up to the cynical ways of Nantucket and the world we live in. Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find any group championing Hart’s opinion as the island wakes up this morning still reeling and confused as the case appeared to be as strong as a Michael Jordan slam dunk at an All-Star game.
So what went wrong?
From a legal standpoint, clerk magistrate Hart summed it up best when he said, “Every other element of the charges have been met but I can’t make the leap to say that the evidence shows Mr. Holdgate was operating the vehicle at the time….”
One sentence encapsulates all the frustration Nantucket is feeling today.
With any motor vehicle violation in Massachusetts, you must prove “operation.”
Who the truck is registered to, phone data, a video showing a white Chevy Silverado accelerating up Main Street on October 29th, or even a distant eyewitness to the accident does not confirm who’s operating the vehicle beyond a reasonable doubt.
Clearly, the violent act is easy to prove. In Latin, res ipsa loquitur - the circumstances surrounding the event make it crystal clear that negligence occurred. However, the issue that prevented a positive recommendation to move forward with the charges was not the fact that there was brutal damage done to the historic fountain. Clearly, that act speaks for itself. The issue was the inability to place Holdgate behind the wheel at the time of the “accident” ultimately making this nothing more than a hit-and-run in the eyes of the law.
That’s a tough pill for many in the Nantucket community to swallow who overwhelmingly saw it differently.
With clerk magistrate Hart acting like a gatekeeper in the probable cause hearing, the question now is what will happen next?
I doubt very much.
Right now, the town is left tying off a few loose ends. One assumes there could be a claim against Holdgate’s truck policy to collect for the damages to the Main Street fountain. Additionally, there is still a DUI and a negligent operation of a motor vehicle charge against Holdgate from that night - unrelated to the fountain destruction - that needs to be adjudicated. However, that’s not what the community wants to hear for the healing process to begin because unless new evidence comes to light allowing this case to be refiled, the statute of limitations expires in six years.
While I hate to disappoint all the Facebook warriors, “the fix” was not in. According to two different sources close to the investigation, “Due process takes time and the securing of phone data took longer than expected. Honestly, we had plenty of evidence but not enough to prove he was behind the wheel.”
Holdgate’s attorney, James Merberg, has a legendary reputation for being able to secure the release of his clients. But, as one lawyer told me, “Merberg is good but any decent public defender would have gotten anyone, including Holdgate, off because the case was marginal without placing the defendant behind the wheel…”
So, is it over?
The true penalty phase is actually underway. While Nantucket has a history of being a compassionate, forgiving, and understanding community, I sense the lack of remorse including dead silence with regard to taking financial responsibility to repair the historic landmark could haunt Holdgate moving forward - if, in fact, it was him behind the wheel that night. While that approach might be part of Merberg’s game plan, there are plenty of ways to make amends versus being ostracized like Hester Prynne. Silence can be debilitating; and inevitably, the end result will be a far harsher penalty than any monetary sanctions imposed by today’s courts.
Clearly, Holdgate is not the victim here. In fact, the true victim is the Nantucket community because we all lost a little something with Thursday’s announcement, not to mention the fountain itself. Frankly, I sense we have slowly become numb to our justice system due to a constant bombardment of legal maneuverings and shenanigans that have taken place at the local, state, and federal levels for many years.
For me, the beginning of the end started in 1995 with the O.J. Simpson trial when Johnnie Cochran famously addressed the jury and said, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Granted, it was a funny, catchy phrase but the moment was as serious as a heart attack. And from that point on, O.J. was a “free” man.
Thursday’s announcement was simply piling on. Consequently, I continue to find myself looking at our justice system with cynicism instead of proudly embracing the balanced scales of Themis.
I don’t think I am alone, especially on Nantucket.
Despite the fact the evidence did not meet the necessary legal threshold in Holdgate’s case, if there was ever a time for Lady Justice to peek out from behind her blindfold to see the violent destruction done to the historic fountain on Main Street and the symbolic damage done to the Nantucket community, October 29th, 2023 was it. If she did, I suspect the impartial decision rendered last Thursday which was applied without regard to wealth, power or other status would have been far different.
Additionally, the timing of the magistrate’s announcement couldn’t have been much worse. We are two weeks away from “Hate Month,” the weather has been crappy, no one is around, restaurants are closed, and the lone bright spot this past weekend was the boy’s high school hockey team putting the hammer down on Monomoy. Until the fountain is repaired, time will not be kind to Nantucket. Since the announcement, we are already the butt of numerous jokes as most off-island commenters generally agree that this “is not a good look for Nantucket…”
Chris Rock once said, “I’d rather be guilty at home than innocent in jail…”
Frankly, I’d rather be innocent and at home.
But Ralph Waldo Emerson also said, “His actions speak so clearly, I did not have to listen to what he says…”
To date, Michael Holdgate has said very little. Maybe that’s his legal strategy. But with that, his silence speaks so clearly that I think the Nantucket community has the answer that the clerk magistrate was searching for last week.