Articles Posted in Homicide

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In a Massachusetts criminal case, the jury consists of either six of twelve jurors. After a trial, a defendant cannot be convicted unless all jurors unanimously agree that the defendant was guilty of the crimes charged. Thus, if even one juror believes that a defendant is not guilty, the court will declare a mistrial, and the defendant will avoid a conviction. For this reason, the jury selection process in Massachusetts criminal trial is critical.

The history of jury-selection practices across the United States is an unfortunate one. While the jury-selection process allows prosecutors and defendants to strike jurors from the panel who they believe will favor the other side through what is called a peremptory strike, there are limits on the exercise of these peremptory strikes.

One of the most fundamental rights any criminal defendant enjoys is the right to be tried by a jury of their peers. This right, embodied in the Sixth Amendment, requires that a jury be drawn from a fair cross-section of society. Thus, in the case, Batson v. Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the prosecution cannot use their peremptory strikes to eliminate jurors based on their race. Since then, the Court has considered numerous other cases involving race-based selection techniques, most recently with the case Flowers v. Mississippi.

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In June 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued an opinion in a Massachusetts manslaughter case involving the defendant’s failure to put her two nephews in age-appropriate car seats. The court ultimately reversed most of the defendant’s convictions, finding that the prosecution failed to establish the defendant’s conduct was reckless or wanton.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was involved in a multi-vehicle accident in which her two nephews – aged four and 16 months – were fatally injured. The defendant and her four-year-old son were injured, but survived. At the time of the accident, the four-year-old was in the back seat with the seatbelt strapped but without a car seat; the 16-month-old child was in a front-facing car seat with the straps set too high.

The defendant was indicted on two counts of manslaughter, two counts of negligent motor vehicle homicide, and three counts of reckless endangerment of a child. The defendant was later convicted of two counts of reckless endangerment, one count of manslaughter, and one count of negligent motor vehicle homicide. The defendant appealed, arguing that she lacked the necessary mental state to find her guilty of manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

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During jury selection in a Massachusetts criminal trial, both the prosecution and the defense are able to ask the court to strike potential jurors from the jury whom they do not believe could be fair. These strikes “for cause” are unlimited in number. However, both sides are also given a limited number of peremptory strikes, which can be used at the party’s discretion.

Decades ago, in a landmark case issued by the United States Supreme Court, the Court held that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, to ensure that members of his race are not excluded from the jury pool based solely on their race. Since then, Massachusetts criminal courts have implemented their own rules to deal with a prosecutor’s racially discriminatory use of their peremptory strikes during jury selection.

In a recent case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts discussed the analysis that must be conducted when a defendant raises this type of challenge. The facts of the case are not particularly relevant to the court’s discussion; however, the case involved an African-American man who was charged with homicide.

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Massachusetts government and law enforcement officials have introduced proposals in the hopes of expanding the limits of secret wiretapping. The reasoning behind the expansion is the purported goal of more easily gathering evidence against criminal suspects, such as with drug crimes.

According to state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the current wire tapping law has not been revised since 1968, and officials feel that it has become outdated. Coakley’s office released a statement summarizing the proposed changes. Most notably, authorities would still need a warrant to wiretap suspects, but the targets would not have to be members of a bona fide organized crime group, such as the Mafia. Additionally, once a warrant has issued for a wiretap under the new law, the revisions would extend the amount of time it could be used from 15 days to 30 days, which the statement claims is consistent with federal law
As a defense attorney, these proposals raise many concerns regarding the rights of criminal suspects. The intended purpose for using wiretaps, is to target individuals who may have sophisticated methods of evading law enforcement, such as those involved in organized crime. The use of wiretaps could lead to monitoring of individuals’ private conversations for long periods of time, and may additionally impinge on the privacy rights of the innocent individual engaged on the other end of the conversation. This could amount to the sort of unreasonable searches and seizures that are protected against by the Fourth Amendment.
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Many prosecutors in Massachusetts believe that potential jurors who watch crime television programs like CSI are prone to wrongfully acquit otherwise guilty defendants when little or no scientific evidence has been presented by them in a criminal case. Massachusetts prosecutors claim that this result which has been called the “CSI effect”, can be traced to the CSI television series and other similar shows. However, there is no solid evidence that the CSI effect actually exists. The complaints about the CSI effect, usually in the form of prosecutor interviews after trial or some media stories, do not amount to solid empirical evidence on the issue. A skilled Massachusetts criminal defense attorney will take advantage of the fact that certain scientific tests were not performed on evidence and arguments and inferences can be made from the lack of scientific testing. Jury instructions will also be requested by the defense regarding the lack of investigation and testing.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed the CSI effect by deciding that potential jurors can now be questioned by prosecutors before they are seated for trial about whether or not they would require indisputable scientific proof in order to find someone guilty of a crime. In upholding the conviction of a defendant charged with murder in a 2003 homicide case, the court rejected the defense argument that the prosecutor’s CSI-related questions prejudiced the jury by suggesting that they should ignore a lack of scientific proof. The defense claimed that such questioning results in dismissing potential jurors that would require more scientific evidence in case. The court stated that the questions, when tailored properly, can ensure that jurors on a given case are able to decide guilt or innocence without any bias. The court also stated that the questions did not favor the prosecution by selecting jurors who were likely to convict a defendant with limited or circumstantial evidence presented by the state.
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The recent case of Commonwealth v. DiPadova in Massachusetts demonstrates how extremely important it is for an experienced Massachusetts and Boston criminal homicide attorney to deviate from proposing a model jury instruction when the facts of the case necessitate a change from what is customarily used.

In the DiPadova case, the Defendant was convicted of killing his former landlady. The Defendant had a substantial history of serious mental illness and had experienced auditory hallucinations (hearing voices). He also had a long history of poly substance abuse, including marijuana, cocaine and alcohol. The defense at trial was that the defendant due to a mental disease or defect, lacked the criminal responsibility for his actions because he lacked the substantial capacity at the time of the crime to appreciate both the wrongfulness of his conduct and to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Commonwealth v. McHoul, 352 Mass. 544, 546-547 (1967).

There was evidence presented at trial of the interaction between the defendant’s abuse of legal and illegal drugs and his mental illness. It was no surprise that the mental health experts hired for both the defense and prosecution disagreed on the impact that the substance abuse had on the defendant’s mental state at the time of the homicide. The Defendant asserted that his drug use aggravated the symptoms of his mental illness. The court stated that the model instruction was erroneous because it only concerned the impact of drug consumption or alcohol use under circumstances in which a defendant’s mental disease or defect does not, independently, render him criminally irresponsible.
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