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SJC Rules Evidence from Incident 13 Years Prior Properly Admitted as Rebuttal Evidence

balance-1172800-1-300x204The Supreme Judicial Court recently affirmed the defendant’s conviction of first degree murder in Commonwealth v. Facella, ruling that the judge did not abuse his discretion in admitting evidence during the Commonwealth’s rebuttal regarding misconduct by the defendant that predated the killing by many years.

The background was as follows. The defendant beat his girl friend to death in 2002. At the trial, the defendant raised a lack of criminal responsibility, claiming that, “at the time of the killing, he had been taking interferon to treat a hepatitis C infection” and that the drug had “rendered him unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law.” The defendant’s medical experts testified that interferon can cause irritability, aggression, and impulsivity. Members of the defendant’s family testified that he began to display these characteristics after he began taking interferon in the fall of 2001. “[T]here also was evidence in the form of medical records indicating [that] the defendant had been treated with interferon for six months beginning around 1994 or 1995.” “To rebut [the interferon] defense, the Commonwealth presented evidence that the defendant, before ever taking the drug, had beaten and threatened to kill two other women with whom he was romantically involved between 1978 and 1989.” On appeal, the defendant argued that the admission of the rebuttal evidence was erroneous, on the ground that there was an insufficient “temporal and substantive nexus between [that] evidence and the charged crime.”

In its decision, the SJC stated, “Because the rebuttal evidence tended to disprove the defendant’s theory of interferon’s effects on him, it was relevant and admissible for that purpose.” “As the trial judge here succinctly stated [in admitting the evidence], ‘If the defendant’s saying, “I killed her because of [i]nterferon,” and [the rebuttal evidence shows that] he almost killed somebody else … when he wasn’t on interferon, then it rebuts the defense.’” The SJC acknowledged, in regard to the issue of temporal nexus, that “the conduct described in the Commonwealth’s rebuttal case” was very old, having “occurred between … thirteen to twenty-four years prior to the charged crime.” The Court noted, however, that “the allowable age of prior bad act evidence often depends upon the strength of the ‘logical relationship’ between the rebuttal evidence and the crime charged. See [Commonwealth v.] Helfant, [398 Mass. 214, 228 n.13 (1986)]. In this case, the ‘logical relationship’ … was quite strong…. [T]he Commonwealth’s rebuttal case hinged on demonstrating that the defendant’s capacity to restrain himself from violence was not meaningfully affected by interferon. According to medical records in evidence, the defendant’s first course of interferon treatment occurred in 1994 or 1995. Any rebuttal evidence, to be relevant, would need to predate that treatment, and therefore would need to predate the charged crime by at least seven or eight years. Under this unique timeline, the ordinary calculus about the age of a defendant’s prior bad acts is dramatically altered…. The rebuttal evidence here was relevant, and its ‘logical relationship’ with the crime charged increased, precisely because it was old, in the sense that it predated the 1994 or 1995 interferon treatment.”

Doing everything possible to make sure that jurors aren’t unfairly prejudiced against a defendant is one of the most important protections that a defense attorney can provide to his client. If you or a loved one is charged in a case where the Commonwealth is attempting to introduce prior bad acts against you at trial, you will undoubtedly need the assistance of an experienced defense attorney who will put you in the best possible position for a favorable result after trial. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has tried many cases and is well versed in the legal arguments against the admission of evidence that will potentially hurt his clients. Call for a free consultation today.