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SJC Vacates Denial of Motion for New Trial and Remands for Evidentiary Hearing  on Third Party Culprit Discovery

questions-1151886-300x225In a recent case – Commonwealth v. Holbrook – the Supreme Judicial Court vacated the judge’s denial of the defendant’s motions for third-party discovery, for an evidentiary hearing, and for a new trial, because substantial evidence supportive of the defendant’s third-party culprit defense never reached the jury and further proceedings are required, on remand, to determine if a new trial is warranted.

The background was as follows. “On November 27, 2006, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the victim was found dead in his home.” He had been beaten to death. “The defendant, who was homeless at the time of the incident, had been raking leaves at the victim’s home the Friday prior to the murder. On Sunday morning, the day before the victim was discovered,” three people acquainted with the victim saw a person generally matching the defendant’s appearance at the victim’s home. At the crime scene, the police recovered DNA and fingerprints that were not from the defendant. “At trial, the defendant mounted an unsuccessful third-party culprit defense, implying throughout the trial that the victim’s alleged former boyfriend, Sean Meagher, was the killer.” “Meagher, who lived with the victim for approximately two years, testified that” they were just friends and “did not have a romantic relationship. Meagher further testified … that he had not seen the victim” during the month preceding the killing. “Not presented to the jury was the fact that, during the investigation, two witnesses provided information to police that contradicted Meagher’s story. Paul Williams informed investigators that he saw Meagher at the victim’s home on Saturday, two days prior to the victim’s body being discovered. In addition, Ian Anderson told police that Meagher and the victim had been involved romantically and that, on that same Saturday, the victim had mentioned to Anderson that Meagher had been sending e-mail messages to the victim ‘constantly’ in an attempt to extort money from him…. [N]o one conducted a follow-up interview with Meagher based on the information those two witnesses provided. Nor did investigators seek to obtain and compare Meagher’s fingerprints to the unknown prints recovered from” the crime scene. Although “the Commonwealth’s computer expert testified [at trial] that there was nothing of evidentiary value found on the hard drive” of the victim’s computer, “the defendant subsequently learned through posttrial discovery that the hard drive contained outgoing e-mail messages dated between September 2005 and July 2006 that were sent from the victim to Meagher or that referenced Meagher. In them, the victim wrote that he was ‘going crazy thinking of [Meagher]’ and that he ‘just want[ed] the past back.’…. These e-mail messages contradicted Meagher’s testimony that he and the victim … were not romantically involved.”

Prior to trial, the defendant had made a specific discovery request for such information. “Following his convictions, and after obtaining new counsel,” the defendant filed two motions for a new trial citing trial counsel’s alleged ineffective assistance in failing (1) to obtain a forensic examination of the data from the hard drive of the victim’s computer, (2) “to request fingerprints from Meagher to compare them with unknown fingerprints recovered from the crime scene,” and (3) “to mount a robust third-party culprit defense and Bowden defense [Commonwealth v. Bowden, 379 Mass. 472, 485-486 (1980)],” based on the information provided by Williams and Anderson. The second new-trial motion was also based on alleged misconduct by the Commonwealth in “fail[ing] to turn over the e-mail messages recovered from the victim’s computer hard drive (and representing … that ‘nothing of evidentiary value’ was found on the hard drive).” In connection with these motions, the defendant also moved for “permission to request from third-party e-mail providers any additional e-mail messages from the victim’s accounts sent in 2005 and 2006 either that were sent between the victim and Meagher or that referenced Meagher.” Finally, the defendant moved for an evidentiary hearing as to all of these matters. The judge denied all of the defendant’s motions and he appealed.

In its decision, the SJC stated, “[T]he order denying the defendant’s motion for third-party discovery is reversed, as is the order denying the defendant’s motion for an evidentiary hearing, and the orders denying the defendant’s motions for a new trial are vacated. The case is hereby remanded to the Superior Court to allow the defendant to conduct the requested third-party discovery of e-mail service providers to determine whether additional e-mail messages shedding light on the relationship between Meagher and the victim exist. The defendant shall be given leave to amend his second motion for a new trial to include any information obtained as a result of said discovery requests. Further, an evidentiary hearing shall be held on the defendant’s motions for a new trial in order for a motion judge to make factual findings regarding the defendant’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct as well as conclusions as to whether the defendant is entitled to a new trial as a result of one or both of these factors, if found.”

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and there is a possible third party culprit defense, you will need an experienced and zealous attorney to make sure that this defense is fully and thoroughly explored through investigation, discovery requests, and persuasive presentation at trial.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta leaves no stone unturned when representing his clients and makes sure all his clients get the best possible defense.  Call him for a free consultation today.

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