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The Concept of Prejudicial Error in Massachusetts Criminal Cases

Judges have a variety of roles in a Massachusetts criminal trial. One of the primary functions of a judge is to decide what evidence is admissible throughout the trial. Often, these issues are litigated before the trial begins in a motion in limine. However, it is also common for judges to make spur-of-the-moment decisions regarding the admissibility of evidence during a trial.

At the conclusion of the evidence, a judge is responsible for instructing the jury on the applicable law. The jury’s role is to consider the evidence and take into account the instructions provided by the judge, ultimately coming to a conclusion regarding whether the prosecution has proven that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judges are human, and as a result, will frequently make mistakes during a trial. It is crucial for a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney to pay close attention to a judge’s rulings during a trial because these errors can be the basis of an appeal. However, not every error a judge makes during a trial will result in the reversal of a guilty verdict.

The Appellate Process

When a defendant is found guilty, he can appeal the legal decisions made by the judge. However, for an appellate court to hear a defendant’s appeal, the defendant must object to the issue at trial, explaining the basis for the objection. This preserves an issue for appeal. Appellate courts will review all preserved errors, applying the relevant law with no deference given to the legal decisions of trial judges. However, if a defendant fails to object to an adverse decision at the time it was made, or fails to provide an adequate basis for the objection, the appellate court will only review the alleged error to ensure that it does not create a “substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.”

The difference between these two standards can be the difference between a successful appeal and an unsuccessful one. For example, in a recent Massachusetts rape case, the defendant was found guilty at a jury trial. The defendant’s main defense was that he consensually had sex with the complaining witness. However, the trial court failed to instruct the jury that a defendant cannot be found guilty of rape if consent was initially given unless the prosecution can establish that the defendant penetrated the victim after consent was revoked. The defendant appealed on this issue.

The appellate court concluded that this was an error, but because the defendant did not object to the jury instruction at the time it was given, the court reviewed the error only to ensure that it did not create a “substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.” After reviewing the evidence, the court found no such risk to be present and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. Had the defendant objected at the time the jury instruction was given, the result of this appeal may have been different.

Have You Been Charged with a Serious Massachusetts Crime?

If you have recently been charged with a serious Massachusetts crime, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy. Attorney Patrick J. Murphy is a dedicated Boston criminal defense attorney with over 22 years of experience representing clients charged with all types of crimes, including Massachusetts sex crimes and other violent crimes. To learn more about how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Court Suppresses Defendant’s Statement Indicating That He Knew Car Was Stolen, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published March 4, 2019

Massachusetts Court Discusses Prosecution’s Obligation to Provide Police Officer Personnel Files, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published February 26, 2019