In a decision issued late Wednesday, Judge Jane Scholl cited a preponderance of evidence supporting Matthew Coster's claim that another student, Cristina Duquette of Watertown, had copied Coster's term paper on the Holocaust, not the other way around. Coster and his family brought the civil suit against Duquette to clear his name and to recoup about $25,000 they spent pursuing the case.
"I was just so excited; I was jumping up and down when my dad called me yesterday," Coster said Thursday. "I didn't believe him at first, then it sunk in. I really feel vindicated. I am just elated."
In her decision, Scholl cited several factors, a number of which refuted claims Duquette made in a countersuit against Coster. Both lawsuits were rolled into the same trial that ended Nov. 24. Scholl also challenged the conclusions of CCSU Western civilization Professor Ronald Moss.
During the four-day civil trial, Moss testified that he believed Duquette's logical, well structured final exam paper was written before Coster's.
"The court does not agree that a review of the final exam paper of both parties supports such a conclusion," Scholl wrote.
Though Duquette was the better student, Scholl wrote, she failed to correct a blatantly erroneous reference to "Communist" Germany rather than "Nazi" Germany — an error that also appeared in Coster's paper. Secondly, Scholl wrote, in order to conclude that Coster used Duquette's paper, one would have to believe that he took Duquette's "B" or "B+" paper and made it a less than "B" paper by inserting typographical errors and "deleting relevant discussion."
"A review of both papers indicates the same order of subjects," the judge wrote. "In Duquette's paper, she added punctuation where needed in Coster's writing. She rephrased his language to more appropriate English."
For example, Coster wrote, "[t]here were many other things at the camps that you had to worry about, the sanitation was horrible." In Duquette's paper, the same phrase reads, "[t]here were many other horrible things that people had to worry about at these camps. One was sanitation." Duquette also corrected Coster's spelling, Scholl wrote, so that "there" became "their," "weather" became "whether," and "striped" became "stripped."
"The more likely scenario is that Duquette took Coster's paper and revised it into a better paper," Scholl wrote.
Scholl also cited a variety of computer evidence and expert testimony bolstering Coster's claim that he filed his paper on time, including electronic date stamps on the term papers showing that Duquette's had been created and submitted on May 23, 2006, and that Coster created and submitted his on May 15, the deadline set by Moss.
But Scholl said there was not enough evidence to find "by clear and convincing proof" that Duquette intentionally snatched a hard copy of Coster's term paper from Moss' unsecured mailbox at CCSU. Being the better student, there was no motive for Duquette to do so, Scholl said, and no one saw Duquette take the paper.
Officials at CCSU said Thursday that they could not comment on either student's status due to federal privacy rules. It is unclear what, if any, action the university plans to take against Duquette, who graduated from CCSU in May and at the time of the trial was working as a substitute teacher in Waterbury.
Asked if the Coster family plans to sue CCSU, Matthew's mother, Judy Coster, said it hasn't been ruled out.
"We are keeping our options open," she said.
As for the court victory, Judy Coster said Thursday, "We are obviously very happy about it. We were very lucky to get such a thorough and conscientious judge, but [we] are frustrated with the fact that it never should have come to this in the first place. There was no new evidence presented to the judge that they didn't have at CCSU."
Matthew Coster, now 21, has maintained his innocence from the time he was expelled in September 2006. He said he suffered bouts of sleeplessness and depression during his two-year quest for vindication, and worried constantly about how the taint of the expulsion would affect his future.
He appealed the action in October 2006, but lost. Since then, he has continued his education at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury.
Coster, who would have graduated in 2009, said he's unsure if he wants to return to CCSU, but will insist that the expulsion be removed from his record and that he receive the "B" he would have earned for the term paper had he not been accused of cheating.
"Although the court is at a loss as to what motivated Duquette to plagiarize Coster's paper, the evidence established that Duquette acted recklessly when she did so," Scholl wrote. "She also acted recklessly when she failed to disclose the truth about what she had done in the face of the charges leveled against Coster by CCSU and Coster's eventual expulsion.
"Although it does not appear that Duquette could have contemplated such a result from her efforts to simply get a good grade in Dr. Moss' course," the judge continued, "she did nothing to rectify the situation when she had an opportunity to do so, but instead continued to claim the paper as her own to protect her own status at the university, all to Coster's severe disadvantage and harm."
Robert Scott, Duquette's Watertown attorney, did not respond to a call seeking comment on the judge's ruling.