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SJC Vacated Conviction Due to Improper Denial of Discovery Motions, Jury Instructions, and Redaction of Medical Records

gavel-4-1236439-300x200The SJC vacated the defendant’s stalking conviction in Commonwealth v. Torres because the judge erred (1) by denying the defendant’s motion pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 17 for production of records in the Attorney General’s office pertaining to the complainant’s application to the victim compensation program; (2) by giving the jury confusing instructions on an element of stalking; and (3) by redacting exculpatory information from the complainant’s dental records.

The background was as follows. The alleged crime occurred in the context of the deterioration of the romantic relationship between the defendant and the victim. “The complainant testified at trial that the defendant physically and verbally abused her during their relationship.” On the particular date in question, the defendant “grabbed her, pushed her up against a closet, and head-butted her between her nose and mouth. She said that her teeth broke as a result of this action…. The complainant … applied for victim compensation, through the Attorney General’s office,” pursuant to G.L. c.258C, §2(c), “to pay for the cost of having her teeth repaired.” The defendant was charged with nine offenses, including stalking. Prior to trial, upon learning that the complainant had applied to the Attorney General’s victim compensation program, the defendant sought access to records in the Attorney General’s office pertaining to that matter. The defendant sought the records “as mandatory discovery [under Mass. R. Crim. P. 14], and, in the alternative, as third-party records, pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 17 … and the procedures [set forth in] Commonwealthv. Dwyer, 448 Mass. 122, 145-146 (2006). The judge concluded that the records could not be produced or disclosed to the defendant because the Attorney General’s regulations [940 Code Mass. Regs. §14.09] mandated that such records be kept confidential.” Eventually, the defendant was convicted of only one offense, stalking.

In its response to the defendant’s first appellate claim, the SJC ruled that the judge erred in denying the defendant’s rule 17 motion on grounds of confidentiality, because, in the Court’s view, “whether records are confidential does not affect whether they are discoverable…. Rather, confidential records, such as those in a victim compensation fund file, are subject to normal discovery rules.” The Court opined that “[t]he denial of the defendant’s request for records under rule 17 prejudiced him. The defendant established that the records … were relevant to” the complainant’s credibility and potential bias, which were probably significant issues for the jury. The judge’s ruling interfered with the defendant’s due process right to explore those issues by cross-examining the complainant on the subject of her request for financial compensation. (The Court also opined that “the records in the Attorney General’s files are not subject to mandatory disclosure under rule 14” because they “‘are not within the control of the prosecution….’ Commonwealthv. Lampron, 441 Mass. 265, 268 n.4 [2004].”)

As to the defendant’s second appellate claim, regarding the judge’s stalking instructions, the SJC noted that in the judge’s main charge, she correctly instructed that one of the elements of stalking was that “‘the defendant knowingly engaged in … a series of acts involving at least three incidents, directed at [the complainant].’” Subsequently, however, in response to a question from the jury, “[t]he judge instructed that the specific date [of the offense] was not an element of the crime and that the jury ‘may find [the defendant] guilty only if you unanimously agree that the Commonwealth has proved … that he committed the offense on at least one specific occasion.’” That supplemental instruction, opined the SJC, “created ambiguity and the potential for confusion as to the Commonwealth’s burden for the stalking charge, because the judge did not make clear the requirement for three separate incidents to support a guilty verdict on the charge of stalking; indeed, the instruction misinformed the jury concerning a critical element of the offense…. The conflicting instructions … created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.”

As to the defendant’s third appellate claim, the SJC ruled that the judge abused her discretion when, over the defendant’s objection, she ordered that the complainant’s dental records be “redacted to remove the dentist’s conclusion that the complainant’s bridge [which supported her false teeth] broke because of decay and not because of spousal abuse.” The SJC opined that the unredacted record was admissible under G.L. c.233, §79, which “‘has long been construed to permit the admission of a record that relates directly and primarily to the treatment and medical history of the patient, “even though incidentally the facts recorded may have some bearing on the question of liability.”’ [Commonwealthv.] Dube, [413 Mass. 570, 573 (1992),] quoting Leonardv. Boston Elevated Ry., 234 Mass. 480, 482–483 (1920).”

Discovery motions, jury instructions, and the admissibility of medical records at trial are three distinct but equally important issues that must be properly litigated by an experienced attorney.  If you or a loved one is charged with a crime, you will need an attorney who is well versed in the law and who knows how to zealously litigate all appropriate issues, both at the pre-trial and trial stage.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney.  Call him today.