SJC chastises Suffolk DA’s Office for “egregious” conduct

In a strongly-worded opinion issued today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote that the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office’s conduct during a recent murder trial was “egregious.”  The case is Commonwealth v. William Wood, SJC-10977.

The two defendants were accused of murdering a woman (by slitting her throat) and seriously injuring her boyfriend (by shooting him in the face) while robbing the boyfriend.  The boyfriend survived and was the Commonwealth’s star witness at trial, identifying both defendants.

The defendants were tried four times for the murder.  There were two mistrials when the jury could not unanimously agree on a verdict and one mistrial when the trial judge became ill.  At the fourth trial, one of the defendants was convicted of first-degree murder and the other defendant was convicted of second-degree murder.  Toward the end of the fourth trial, the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office issued a press release entitled “4th Trial Ends for Duo Accused of Brutal Murder, Attempt.”  The press release was issued after the attorneys gave their closing arguments but before the judge instructed the jury on the law and allowed them to begin deliberations.  The press release stated that the first trial ended in a hung jury, following an 11-1 vote to convict.  The second trial ended with the trial judge’s illness.  The third trial ended in a hung jury, following a 10-2 vote to convict.  The press release further summarized the facts of the case, referencing the victim’s “horrific death” during the course of a “brutal murder” and cited the prosecutor’s statement that the victim’s “life literally drained out of her body.”

A local newspaper ran a story repeating the contents of the press release and three of the jurors saw the story (with two reading it and one reading only the headline).   The attorneys alerted the trial judge to the newspaper article and the judge questioned the jurors who saw it.  The two jurors who read the article said they did not notice the section about the prior vote counts, and they would be able to remain impartial. The judge allowed the jurors to remain seated, and the two jurors who read the article were ultimately designated as the alternates and did not deliberate (an event described by the SJC as significant and fortunate for the Commonwealth).

The defendants argued on appeal that the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office’s decision to issue the press release constituted egregious government misconduct that required reversal of their convictions.  The SJC agreed that “the Commonwealth’s actions were egregious… the press release contained vote counts that showed that two prior juries strongly favored conviction.  It also presented the facts of the case in sensationalized terms that exclusively favored the Commonwealth’s theory of the case.”  The Court further said that it would have been problematic if any juror had read the press release, because he or she would have learned that 21 of the 24 jurors who previously listened to the evidence believed the defendants were guilty.  “[T]he Commonwealth should have known that the press release contained prejudicial information that it made available for use by the media at a critical moment in the trial, and thus its decision to issue the press release was, at best, gross negligence.”

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the egregious conduct of the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office did not deprive the defendants of a fair trial.  The trial judge conducted the appropriate questioning of the three jurors who saw the article, and the two jurors who read the article did not deliberate.

The issuance of the press release in this case was shameful.  It is another reminder that when you are charged with a crime and being prosecuted by a district attorney’s office, it is crucial that you hire an experienced, aggressive criminal defense attorney to protect your interests.