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Articles Posted in criminal trials

The SJC decided the case of Commonwealth v. Quinton Williams finding that the trial judge did not error by excluding a juror who stated that the criminal justice system was rigged against young black Americans.  The SJC in the majority opinion and concurring opinion of the Chief Justice stated that it would not be proper to exclude the juror for cause based on this opinion, which the Court indicated has empirical support so is closer to a fact than opinion.
The Court found that the trial judge properly excluded the juror because of her equivocation about whether she could be fair and impartial.  The Chief Justice in his concurring opinion indicated that the court gives great deference to a trial judge questioning a juror as the questions are quick and spontaneous.  The Chief Justice indicated that while he would not have excluded the juror and may have asked more questions, that he did not find a reversible error in the decision to exclude the juror.

The defendant argued that if the court strikes a juror for cause improperly, the court should automatically reverse the conviction as it is a structural error in the trial, the equivalent of giving the Commonwealth and extra peremptory challenge.  The Court rejected the argument that this is the same as denying the defendant a peremptory challenge finding that the juror was presumably replaced with another fair juror.  The Court found that a defendant is not entitled to a a jury of any particular composition.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Michelle Carter’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter.  The SJC began its decision by addressing what it decided in Michelle Carter’s first appeal to the SJC referred to as Carter I.  In Carter I, the SJC held that verbal conduct alone could overcome a person’s will and rise to wanton and reckless conduct to support a conviction for involuntary manslaughter.

The SJC held that the evidence presented to the trial judge was sufficient to support a conviction.  The SJC essentially adopted the reasoning of the trial judge in the case.

Key Evidence Supporting the conviction 

In a Massachusetts Criminal Trial, of any type, whether murder or an OUI, the verdict must be unanimous, meaning that all six jurors have to agree whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty.  If jurors cannot reach a unanimous verdict, it is called a hung jury and the Commonwealth is permitted to retry the case.  The first Bill Cosby trial ended in a hung jury. In every criminal trial, a jury should be instructed on this principal of law.  The jury misunderstood this; possibly the instruction should be simplified telling the jury directly that a conviction cannot rest on a vote of five to one or four to two.

In Commonwealth v. Dibenedetto, a trial from the Worcester District Court the jury was under the mistaken belief that only a majority was required to return a verdict.  When the judge learned of this after thanking the jurors following the verdict, he instructed them that the verdict must be unanimous.  After his reinstruction following the first verdict, the jury then again returned a guilty verdict.  

The Appeals Court held that after the verdict is recorded the verdict is final. After the verdict is rendered, the judge is precluded from inquiring into the propriety of the jurors deliberation or decision making. The Appeals Court stated that the prohibition against impeachment of a verdict is not absolute.  Juror testimony, the Court stated, can be used to show the following:  unauthorized site visits, improper communication between parties, or consideration of facts not in evidence, as well as racial bias. 

  On January 7th, Actor Kevin Spacey will be arraigned on Indecent Assault and Battery charges out of Nantucket District Court.  Spacey’s lawyers requests that his presence be waived for the arraignment due to publicity from the case.  Spacey is charged with sexual assault of a teenager in a Nantucket bar.  

Lawyers argued that Spacey’s appearance would increase the publicity from he case and potentially contaminated the jury pool.  

Definition of an Arraignment in Massachusetts Felony Charge

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case of Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter yesterday.  In this Blog, I have outlined some of the key issues that the SJC addressed during the oral argument.

Was there sufficient evidence to convict Carter of involuntary manslaughter?  

The defense lawyer argued that the key pieces of evidence is the defendant’s text from two months after where she told a friend that she told him to get back into the truck.  The defense contended that that text message was part of very long and rambling texts so that to use a text as the basis to find her guilty was not supported by sufficient evidence.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will address a case that will have an important impact on the way juries are formulated in Massachusetts.  The case is Commonwealth v. Quinton Williams, where a judge allowed the prosecutor to excuse for cause a juror that stated that Black American are treated unfairly by the judicial system.  The SJC allowed for direct appellate review in the case.

  The case was a drug distribution charge out of the Brockton District Court.    The juror answered the judge’s question as follows after the judge asked if the juror has an bias in the case. The juror responded as follows:  

I work with low-income youth in a school setting; I work a lot with teenagers who are convicted of drug crimes.  And frankly, I think the system is rigged against young African Americans.  The juror said that the views could be put from the juror’s mind after asked by the judge.  The juror indicated that the opinion would not impact the ability to be fair and impartial.  

Jury selection is a critical part of any criminal trial in Massachusetts.  In Massachusetts, the rules have changed allowing greater attorney participation in jury selection.  The new rules permit Attorney conducted voir dire.  However, the judge still determines whether an individual shall be excluded for cause from a jury.  There are two ways to exclude a potential juror from sitting on a jury.  The first is through a challenge for cause.  This is a request by one of the attorney to exclude a juror based on the fact that the lawyer believes that the juror cannot be fair and impartial. 

For example, in an OUI trial, a judge may exclude a juror for cause that has been in an accident with someone thought to be under the influence of alcohol.  This would be based on the fact that the juror’s experience may bias the juror against the defense.  Some judges may try to rehabilitate the juror to keep the juror on the panel by asking if the juror can set aside that experience and still be fair and impartial.  A judge should allow a defense lawyer to ask follow up questions to determine if the experience is so ingrained that it would start the defendant off at a disadvantage with respect to this juror. 

A recent case decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed the issue of when a judge abuses his discretion for not excluding a juror for cause.  The case was Commonwealth v. Chambers, decided on August 29,2018.  

A Florida pre-teen was found dead in her home in Glades, Florida on January 10. The alleged culprits in the case, two middle-schoolers, are facing cyberstalking charges after one of their classmates, Gabriella Green, took her own life after being harassed on the internet through various social media platforms.

Cyberbullying, as defined by the United State Government, is bullying that takes place using electronic technology.  Essentially, the term “cyberbullying” describes the act of harassing, threatening or intimidating another individual via electronic means such as by use of cell phones, computers, tablets, and social media platforms.

Cyberbullying is illegal in Florida as well as in states across the country and can result in criminal charges. Generally speaking, cyberbullying is a crime most prominent among young adults, teenagers, and preteens. It is a crime of the generation; social media platforms are becoming increasingly popular “weapons” for teenagers to bully one another.

The New York State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Ceresia recently ruled that prosecutors are not allowed to introduce Google location services as evidence into the second degree murder trial of Johnny Oquendo. In the ruling, Ceresia highlighted that prosecutors ultimately “failed to meet their burden” when exemplifying that Google location services is accepted in the relevant scientific community.

Prosecutors had originally wanted to introduce evidence from the Oquendo’s cellphone from the night of the murder, arguing that the location services on his phone could pinpoint where the defendant was throughout that night. Oquendo’s defense attorney William Roberts asked the judge to hold a hearing in regards to the evidence.

The hearing was held on October 16, 2017; prosecutors called two witnesses to the stand, an FBI Special Agent Michael Sabric and a records custodian for Google, Sarah Rodriquez. While the witnesses presented by the state were qualified to offer opinions on the google technology, the judge argued, there simply was not any reference to how the technology itself has gained acceptance in the scientific community.

Gun charges against a Holden man were recently dismissed as the Massachusetts State Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the search warrant that was issued lacked probable cause and was ultimately invalid. This comes after the defendant Steven Mora filed a motion to suppress the fruits of the search, which uncovered a handgun, a magazine, and ammunition, arguing that the search warrant lacked probable cause.

The legal standard for issuing a search warrant is probable cause. To establish said probable cause, the police must submit an affidavit establishing facts surrounding the case and a clerk magistrate will conclude whether to not the items that the police are requesting the warrant for are related to the criminal activity that is under investigation. The defendant, Steven Mora, argued that the search warrant for the safe was improperly issued and the affidavit prepared by the Worcester Police Department failed to establish the necessary probable cause. The police were conducting surveillance in an area known to police for frequent drug transactions, when they observed the defendant approach a drug-dealer and make what they believed to be an illegal purchase.

Mora, the drug dealer, and an unidentified woman entered a car and eventually left the parking lot; shortly after the police pulled over the vehicle and conducted a pat-frisk of Mora and a inventory search of the vehicle. The search led to the discovery of a small safe in the backseat of the vehicle which the police confiscated. Because the police did some research and uncovered that firearms are typically stored in a similar safe to the one found in the backseat, the police prepared & presented an affidavit to the clerk magistrate. The affidavit clearly established probable cause that drug transactions did occur, but the affidavit, argued the defendant, did not connect the drug dealing or any other criminal activity to the safe found in the defendant’s motor vehicle.

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