In Commonwealth v. Hernandez, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for a new trial on his indictment for first degree murder. In its ruling, the SJC ruled that the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence prior to trial was error, but that it was not prejudicial.
The background was as follows. The defendant and the victim got into an argument outside the defendant’s residence. The victim eventually walked … to his motor vehicle, which was parked in front of the defendant’s home, and started the engine. The defendant walked up to the passenger side of the motor vehicle, where the argument continued. The defendant then pulled [a] handgun from his pocket and fired into the vehicle, striking the victim in the chest. The defendant testified that he shot the victim in self-defense when he saw the victim reach for something shiny [in his vehicle] that the defendant believed was a gun. The prosecution presented evidence that the only items found in the motor vehicle in which the victim sat were a steering wheel locking device, a baseball hat, a cigarette lighter, a cellular telephone, and a twenty dollar bill, and argued that none of these items could have been mistaken for a firearm. At trial, the state crime laboratory chemist who had supervised the search of the crime scene (Koester) testified that at the scene he inspected the outside of the vehicle and searched the surrounding area. Unbeknownst to the defense, just twelve days prior to the commencement of the trial, Koester was informed that … he [had] received an unsatisfactory result … on his 2011 crime scene proficiency test regarding the method for measuring blood spatter. Moreover, just six days prior to trial, a member of the crime lab quality assurance management section was informed that Koester [had] received unsatisfactory results on an earlier (2010) crime scene proficiency test, also as a result of improperly measured blood spatter evidence. This information [regarding Koester’s two test failures] was not disclosed to the defense prior to trial. The defense became aware of Koester’s work-related performance issues after the defendant’s conviction. The defendant then filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied after a non-evidentiary hearing. On appeal, the defendant argue[d] that the motion was improperly denied because the information on Koester’s performance deficiencies raise[d] doubts as to the accuracy and reliability of the evidence collection in [this] case. Continue reading →