Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Nixes Retrial in Dorchester Murder Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today denied the Suffolk District Attorney’s efforts to retry a defendant for murder and armed assault with intent to murder, and instead entered findings of not guilty.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Simpkins.

The defendant and the victim were involved in two incidents that resulted in the victim’s shooting death and the defendant’s indictment for murder, armed assault with intent to murder, accessory after the fact to murder, and unlawful possession of firearms.  Following trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of the firearms offense and accessory after the fact to murder.  However, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the indictments alleging murder and armed assault with intent to murder.  The Commonwealth wanted to retry the defendant on those charges, but the defendant argued that based on the evidence at the trial, the judge should have found him not guilty as a matter of law.

The victim was killed on May 7, 2010, when two men in matching colored sweatshirts shot at him and his brother.  The victim was hit once in the neck and once in the stomach and later died from his wounds.  One of the eyewitnesses to the shooting testified that the defendant was not one of the shooters.  One of the shooters said, “what’s up now?” before the victim was shot.

Approximately one week before the shooting, the victim’s brother was approached in a parking lot by a group of men including the defendant.  One member of the group asked the brother, “what’s up?”  The defendant then arrived and asked if there was a problem.  One of the men in the group said there was no problem, and the group then got into a white Ford Taurus.  On the date of the shooting, the victim’s brother saw a group of men, including the defendant, get out of the same Taurus and enter the defendant’s residence.  The police later discovered that the Taurus was registered to a codefendant’s brother, and the codefendant frequently hung out at the defendant’s house.  The defendant’s fingerprints were also found in the Taurus.  The evidence at trial established that the defendant helped to conceal the guns used in the shooting.

The Commonwealth conceded at trial that the defendant was not one of the shooters, but argued he was guilty of murder under a joint venture theory of aiding and abetting the shooters.  Accordingly, the prosecutor needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly participated in the crime and shared the required criminal intent with the shooters.

The Commonwealth argued that the first encounter between the groups of men constituted evidence of motive, but the Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.  The Court concluded that even if the shooters had been present at the first incident (a fact not proven at trial), there was no evidence that they had any contact with the defendant prior to the shooting.  Moreover, even if it could be proven that the defendant rode in the white Taurus during both incidents, there was no evidence to prove he knew about the shooting or its planning.

Because the Commonwealth failed to prove at the trial that the defendant was a knowing participant to the shooting, the trial judge should have found him not guilty as a matter of law.  The Supreme Judicial Court entered findings of not guilty on the murder and armed assault with intent to murder charges and sent the case back to superior court for sentencing on the other two charges.  This case represents the important criminal law principle that a defendant cannot be convicted of a crime even if he knew about it and failed to prevent it.  Simply being present at or near a crime scene cannot result in a criminal conviction.