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SJC Finds Limitation of Cross-Examination of Medical Examiner to be Error, but Declines to Overturn Conviction

knife-501415-m-1The Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled in Commonwealth v. Gallett that the judge erred in limiting defendant St. Jean’s cross-examination of the medical examiner, but that the error did not warrant the reversal of St. Jean’s convictions of first degree murder and armed robbery.

The background was as follows. St. Jean, codefendant Gallett, and Gallett’s girlfriend (Mathurin) “concoct[ed] a plan to rob” a pizza delivery driver at a vacant house. “Mathurin telephoned a pizzeria and placed an order…. [She] gave St. Jean’s cellular telephone … number as the call-back number and asked the pizzeria employee to send the delivery driver to … the address [of] the vacant house…. Soon thereafter, the victim arrived with the order. Mathurin met the victim in the driveway … and escorted him” into the house. “Five minutes later, [St. Jean, Gallett,] and Mathurin left the house…. St. Jean drove Gallett and Mathurin away in the victim’s vehicle,” which “[t]he group [later] abandoned.” The victim’s body was found in the vacant house. He had been stabbed to death and his “pockets were turned inside out.” At the scene, the police recovered a knife handle and “a bloody and slightly bent knife blade.” When officers located the victim’s vehicle, they found inside a pizza box whose label “listed … St. Jean’s cell phone number … as the call-back number.” “Fair inferences from the evidence showed that St. Jean was armed with a knife, planned to rob someone, lured the victim into the vacant house, and attacked the victim.” St. Jean’s theory of defense was that “although he went with Gallett and Mathurin to the vacant house and broke into it by punching his fist through glass on the back door, he did not participate in the victim’s murder or robbery.” At the trial, “St. Jean attempted to cross-examine the Commonwealth’s medical examiner [regarding] wounds on St. Jean’s right hand,” which a police witness had described as “cuts on ‘the meaty side on the back of [the] … hand,’ ‘a laceration type injury on the heel near his wrist’ and ‘on the knuckle.’ Defense counsel asked the medical examiner, ‘If a person were wielding a knife and injured themselves on the knife that they were wielding, you would expect to see injuries to the interior of their palm; is that fair to say?’ The Commonwealth objected.” At the ensuing sidebar conference, “defense counsel argued that he should be allowed to question the medical examiner about any defensive or offensive injuries he would expect to see in the circumstances raised in his question.” The judge excluded the proposed cross-examination, “concluding that she did not ‘think [the medical examiner was] qualified to talk about the possible wounds that might be inflicted on knife wielders.’” On appeal, St. Jean challenged that ruling.

In its decision, the SJC opined that “the judge should have permitted St. Jean to cross-examine the medical examiner about theoretical wounds on St. Jean’s hand.” The Court noted that the medical examiner testified that “[h]is duties included examinations of individuals who had sustained stab wounds. [Therefore,] it would have been reasonable for [him] to opine on potential stab wounds on St. Jean’s hands. ‘A medical expert may testify, in response to a hypothetical question, that the type of injury he has observed is consistent with the Commonwealth’s theory of how the wound was inflicted, so long as that theory is based on other evidence already introduced.’ Commonwealth v. A Juvenile, 365 Mass. 421, 438 (1974).” The Court concluded, however, that for several reasons the erroneous limitation on cross-examination of the medical examiner was not prejudicial. “First, the judge did not completely bar St. Jean from cross-examining the medical examiner about knife wounds. St. Jean questioned the expert on the position of the attacker based on the victim’s wounds, the direction of each stab wound, and the blood loss that would have resulted from such wounds. [Moreover,] the judge ruled … that she would allow St. Jean to present expert testimony regarding the cut to his hand if she deemed it relevant after the Commonwealth rested. St. Jean never sought to call such a witness. [In addition,] St. Jean was permitted to present other evidence to show [that] he did not wield the knife, such as … the lack of his blood on the knife’s handle.” Finally, he was permitted to present to the jury “an explanation of the presence of his blood in other places in the house by suggesting he injured his knuckle by punching a back door window.”

If you or a loved one is charged in a criminal case that involves expert testimony, you will need an attorney to make sure that that expert is subjected to full and fair cross examination.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is well versed in criminal and evidentiary law and always makes sure that the Commonwealth’s witnesses are thoroughly challenged, and that his client’s rights and objections are protected and preserved.  Call him today and put his expertise to work for you.

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