Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction Resulting from Lawrence Home Invasion

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a man who participated in a home invasion in Lawrence that ultimately resulted in the shooting death of the drug dealer who lived in the apartment.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Joonel Garcia

In August of 2004, the defendant’s landlord and two other men asked the defendant to join them in robbing drugs from the victim, who was a drug dealer.  One night, the defendant and his three acquaintances drove to the victim’s apartment and broke in.  They waited approximately half an hour until the victim and the victim’s girlfriend’s adult daughter arrived home.  As the victim and his girlfriend’s daughter walked into the apartment, one of the assailants tackled the daughter.  One of the other assailants shot the victim once in the forehead, causing him to bleed profusely.  The victim and the girlfriend’s daughter were both tied up as the assailants demanded that the victim produce the drugs (which the victim denied possessing).  When it became apparent that they would not be receiving any drugs, the defendant and the other men left the apartment.  The victim’s girlfriend’s daughter then attempted to call her mother and her former boyfriend for advice before finally calling for help.  By the time the ambulance arrived, the victim had died of cardiac arrest resulting from blood loss.  Meanwhile, the defendant returned to his apartment where he was met by his girlfriend.  The girlfriend observed blood spatters on the defendant’s clothes.  The defendant told the girlfriend they were driving to the airport to get on the next plane to the Dominican Republic.  On the way to the airport, the defendant threw his gun into the woods.  Upon arriving in the Dominican Republic, the defendant told his girlfriend that the victim had been accidentally shot during a struggle for the gun.  The defendant’s girlfriend returned to Lawrence and made statements to the police.  When the defendant later returned to Lawrence, he was charged with murder, home invasion, armed assault with intent to rob, and burglary.

The defendant was indicted for murder under the “felony murder” rule, which states that if the defendant is participating in a felony that results in somebody’s death, the defendant can be charged with murder as long as he intended to commit the underlying felony.  Here, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the defendant intended to rob the victim and he knew at least one of his codefendants was armed.  The defendant entered the victim’s apartment and hid for 30 minutes until the victim arrived home.  On this evidence, the jury rightly concluded that the defendant had the requisite intent to commit home invasion, armed assault with intent to rob, and armed burglary.  Because the victim died as a result of the underlying felonies for which the defendant was convicted, the defendant was properly convicted of murder pursuant to the felony murder rule.

The defendant also argued that he should not be responsible for the victim’s death, because it was the victim’s girlfriend’s daughter who had caused the death by not immediately calling for help.  In Massachusetts, if a third party’s intervening act is the cause of the victim’s death, the defendant cannot be convicted of murder.  However, the intervening act must have been unforeseeable.  In this case, the Court ruled it was foreseeable that there would be a delay in the ambulance arriving to render assistance to the victim.  Accordingly, any delay in calling for help did not constitute an intervening cause that became the proximate cause of the victim’s death.

This case illustrates the danger in participating in a violent criminal enterprise.  It appears that the defendant was a small player in a crime that unexpectedly resulted in another person’s death.  This is a textbook example of how someone executing a minor role in a felony can very easily find himself liable for murder.