Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Murder Conviction in Cambridge Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who shot to death his coworker at a Cambridge company in 2009.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Clyde Howard.

The defendant and the victim both worked at Baystate Pool Supplies in Cambridge.  On a January morning in 2009, following an argument, the defendant pursued and shot the victim numerous times, including twice in the head.  The shooting and its aftermath was witnessed by several other Baystate employees, who called the police.  The victim was rushed to the emergency room, where he died shortly after arrival.  The defendant fled the scene.

The defendant was found sleeping in a van in Roxbury later in the day.  He was booked at the Boston Police Department and charged with murder and later transported to the Cambridge Police Station.  During transport to Cambridge, it was apparent to the police that the defendant was impaired by alcohol.  Therefore, the officers decided not to question the defendant until the next day.  The following morning, a Cambridge detective and a Massachusetts State trooper interrogated the defendant.  The defendant initially waived his Miranda right to remain silent and talked to the officers for 45 minutes.  However, he expressed reluctance about discussing “sensitive” matters.  As the questioning progressed and the officers began to ask questions about the shooting, the defendant said he wanted to stop talking because “it [be]comes more intricate now and who knows what’s going to happen.”  Instead of immediately discontinuing the interview, the Cambridge detective reminded the defendant that the crime had already occurred and was witnessed by multiple people.  The interrogation continued and the defendant made damaging statements that were used against him at trial.  Following his conviction for first-degree murder, the defendant appealed and argued that the trial judge should have suppressed the statements he made to the Cambridge detective.

The Supreme Judicial Court reviewed the bedrock principle that a criminal defendant can exercise his right to remain silent at any time, including in the middle of an interview to which he previously consented.  However, the defendant must clearly and unambiguously assert his right to remain silent.  The Commonwealth argued to the SJC that the defendant had not expressed his desire to stop the interview in its entirety, but only to not answer certain questions related to the shooting.  The Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument, and ruled that when viewed in context, it was clear that the defendant no longer wanted to proceed with the interview.  The Court wrote that the detective would have been warranted in asking a direct, brief question to clarify whether the defendant wanted to stop the interview entirely or continue talking about other topics.  Because the detective failed to do so, and failed to “scrupulously honor” the defendant’s request to remain silent, the trial judge should have allowed the defendant’s motion to suppress the statements he made after exercising his right to remain silent.

The next question is whether the admission of the defendant’s statement was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”  If so, the conviction would have been upheld.  However, the Court ruled that the statement’s admission, combined with the prosecutor’s improper closing argument and the trial’s judge’s incorrect jury instructions, required reversal of the defendant’s conviction.   The Court was particularly critical of the prosecutor, pointing out that he used the defendant’s exercise of his right to remain silent to suggest that the defendant was guilty.  The Court said, “[u]sing the invocation of Miranda rights to comment on a defendant’s substantive guilt is strictly prohibited.”  The prosecutor also used evidence of the defendant’s prior bad conduct in an inappropriate way, and the Court wrote that he “repeatedly and quite blatantly ignored the [trial] judge’s evidentiary limitation.”  As a result of all these errors, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s first-degree murder conviction.

This case illustrates the importance of aggressively litigating pretrial motions to suppress evidence and statements.  These pretrial motions determine what evidence will be introduced to the jury, and often determine the outcome of criminal cases.