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SJC Reverses First Degree Murder Conviction on Jurisdictional Grounds

gavel-2-1236453-300x200The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s convictions of first-degree murder and a related offense in Commonwealth v. Combs.  The Court based its decision on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the victim, whose body was discovered in Connecticut, was killed in Massachusetts.

The background was as follows. The Commonwealth’s theory was that the defendant acted as part of a joint venture with a person named Manny to rob and murder the victim. There was evidence that at 10:20 a.m. on January 22, 2010, the victim, who was driving a white SUV, picked up Manny from his place of work in Hartford, Connecticut. “Both men sold cocaine, and they had arranged a drug deal. The plan also involved the defendant,” an acquaintance of Manny. The victim and Manny drove to the Springfield apartment of the defendant’s girl friend (where the defendant often stayed), arriving sometime shortly before 11:00 a.m. “The jury could reasonably infer that the victim was alive when [the SUV] arrived at the Springfield apartment.” A neighbor “saw the defendant in the front yard, signaling to Manny to drive the SUV over the grass on the side of the [building] and around to the back yard…. [The neighbor] witnessed Manny step out of the vehicle and show the defendant something in the back seat…. [Manny and the defendant] appeared ‘excited.’” “After spending approximately thirty minutes … at the apartment, at around 11:40 a.m., Manny and the defendant began driving back toward Hartford. It is not clear whether the victim was alive at this time. Manny traveled in the victim’s SUV, presumably with the victim or the victim’s body, while the defendant followed them in his mother’s Pontiac Grand Prix automobile.” Shortly after noon, the men were in the Bloomfield, Connecticut, area.

“At some point during the period beginning when the victim arrived in Springfield, and through the time that Manny and the defendant were in Bloomfield, the victim was strangled to death with a ligature. Manny and the defendant left the victim’s body in the back seat of the SUV, parked in the parking lot of a Bloomfield retail store. Manny then got into the Grand Prix, and the defendant drove him back to work in Hartford, where he arrived” at around 12:30 p.m. “The victim’s body was discovered [in the SUV] the following evening by members of the Bloomfield police department.” Police investigators found DNA in the SUV that matched the profiles of the defendant and Manny. “The investigators did not … search [for] forensic evidence from the Springfield apartment.” In his statements to the police, the defendant initially “denied knowing Manny or the victim, and said that he had not” been in Springfield on the date in question. Later, he admitted that he had been at his girl friend’s apartment and “that Manny had visited him [there] and had brought a friend … driving the SUV…. Then, according to the defendant, Manny and his friend got into the SUV and drove” toward Hartford, with the defendant following in the Grand Prix. The defendant stated that, at some point, “Manny called him [from the SUV] and asked for a ride, because Manny’s friend was going elsewhere and Manny needed to return to work. The defendant then picked up Manny and drove him back to work in Hartford.” At the trial, the Commonwealth argued “that the victim was strangled inside the defendant’s girl friend’s apartment in Springfield.” In his appeal from his convictions, the defendant claimed that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the victim had been killed in Massachusetts, such that the Massachusetts courts did not have territorial jurisdiction over the case.

In its decision, the SJC “agree[d] with the defendant that the location of the crimes — whether they occurred in Massachusetts or Connecticut (where the victim’s body was found) — remains too speculative to sustain the jury’s finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Although this type of jurisdictional challenge does not come up often, it is critical that anyone charged with a criminal offense has an attorney who recognizes the opportunity for such a defense, or a similarly unusual or creative claim, and is willing to act upon it.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a skilled and experienced attorney who is familiar with the wide and varied defenses that may be raised on behalf of his clients and always puts all possible defenses to use for them.  Call him for a free consultation today.