Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Concludes that Duress is not a Defense to Juvenile Murder Defendants

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reaffirmed its previous ruling that the defense of duress is not available in first-degree murder cases.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Jackson.

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, unlawfully possessing a firearm, and unlawfully possessing ammunition.  In January of 2002, the victim was smoking a cigar with a friend on the front porch of a Dorchester home.  The defendant walked toward them and exchanged pleasantries with them before turning around and beginning to walk away.  The defendant then pulled out a gun and shot the victim, who died shortly thereafter at a city hospital.

The following day, Boston police officers found and arrested the defendant (who was 17 years old at the time of the crime).  The defendant was transported to the police station, where he made a statement to the police.  The defendant admitted he had shot the victim.  He told the police that the day before the shooting, one of his friends told him that people suspected him of being a police informant.  The friend told the defendant that the only way to avoid being punished for being a “rat” was to kill the victim, who had allegedly killed the defendant’s close friend seven years earlier.

At trial, the defendant wanted to assert the defense of duress.  Duress occurs when an individual is faced with an immediate and present threat such that he reasonably believes he will face death or serious bodily injury unless he commits a crime.  Duress requires that the defendant had no reasonable chance to escape and no reasonable person would have acted differently if faced with the same circumstances.  The Supreme Judicial Court had previously ruled that a murder defendant cannot assert duress, but the defendant here argued that the defense should be available to juvenile defendants.  The defendant pointed out that recent developments in criminal law have acknowledged the inherent differences between adults and juveniles and, accordingly, juveniles should benefit from the availability of a duress defense when charged with murder.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument and reiterated that duress can never be used in murder cases, because the defense recognizes that sometimes an individual will be faced with choosing the better of two evils.  However, in a murder case, the victim necessarily dies.  Therefore, the defendant who commits the murder can never establish that the threat of harm to him (even if it is a reasonable threat to his life) is greater than the death of the victim.  The Court pointed out that even if duress was available as a defense to juvenile murder defendants, the elements were not established in this case because the defendant was not the subject of an immediate threat and there was no evidence that he could not escape or avoid the harm that was allegedly threatened.

Both the United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have recently issued rulings that establish juveniles are entitled to more protections in criminal court than adults.  These decisions have dealt with mandatory minimum prison sentences, the death penalty, and the manner in which juveniles are interrogated by the police.  However, it is not surprising that the SJC would not adopt the defendant’s argument in this case and accept that juveniles can assert a substantive defense that is not available to adults.