Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Dorchester Murder Conviction Because of Improper Joint Venture Instruction

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the murder conviction of a defendant who was allegedly involved in a fatal shooting in Dorchester because the trial judge improperly instructed the jury on the law of joint venture.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sandro Tavares.

During the early morning hours of August 2, 2009, there was an argument at a bar in Dorchester that ultimately resulted in two victims being fatally shot.  The defendant was present for the initial argument but then left the bar.  Patrons who remained in the bar continued to argue and, later, engage in physical fighting.  The defendant returned to the area outside the bar and was carrying a gun.  As the fight spilled onto the street outside of the bar, the defendant pointed his gun at one of the other men who had recently left the bar.  Before pulling the trigger, the defendant’s acquaintance (and soon to be codefendant) grabbed the gun away from the defendant and began shooting.  The codefendant shot and killed a cook from the bar and then chased down, shot, and killed one of the other patrons who had been involved in the initial confrontation.  The defendant and the codefendant were subsequently arrested and charged with murder and firearms offenses.  They were both convicted by a jury.

Because the defendant was not the shooter, the Commonwealth needed to prove his guilt on a joint venture theory of liability.  Joint venture means that a defendant knowingly participates in the commission of the crime with at least one other person and has the same intent required for the offense.

In this case, the SJC noted that the defendant clearly participated in the events leading up to the fatal shootings.  However, the Commonwealth was also obligated to prove that the defendant had the requisite state of mind to be convicted of murder – essentially that he had an intent to kill or cause death.  The Court ruled that the jury could have correctly concluded that the defendant shared his codefendant’s intent to murder the other person who had been involved in the initial confrontation by obtaining the murder weapon and allowing or encouraging his codefendant to commit the killing.  However, in response to a question posed by the jury, the trial judge gave an ambiguous answer that did not make clear that the defendant needed to have shared the intent (an intent to kill) with the shooter.  The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged that the evidence of the defendant’s intent was “open to a number of different interpretation” and therefore, the trial judge’s suggestion that the defendant could not be found guilty of a different level of murder than his codefendant constituted reversible error.  Because the Court was not substantially confident that the jury would have convicted without the trial judge’s error, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the murder conviction and remanded the case to the superior court for a new trial.

Joint venture is a complicated legal concept that is difficult for a jury to apply.  This case illustrates the difficulty the Commonwealth sometimes encounters in prosecuting defendants under a joint venture theory.