Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules that Text Messages can Qualify as Excited Utterances

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a Haverhill man who stabbed his wife to death in February of 2010.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Mulgrave.

The defendant, who was from Jamaica, married the victim in 2008.  After living briefly in Las Vegas, the couple moved to Haverhill to be closer to the victim’s sister and her two children.  The defendant became depressed when he could not find work, and the victim suggested that he return to Jamaica.  In 2010 on Super Bowl Sunday, the defendant was acting strangely all day.  The next night, when the victim arrived home, she saw the defendant lying unconscious on the floor with a string tied into a noose hanging around his neck.  There was also a knife in the waistband of his pants and a bottle of alcohol close by.  The victim did not call the police and left her home before the defendant regained consciousness.  The next day, the victim went to her sister’s house and told her what had happened the previous night.  She then told her sister she was going home to “handle her business.”  Two hours later, the victim sent a text message to her son saying that the defendant was threatening to kill her and she was scared he would kill her if she picked up the phone.  Six minutes later, she called 911 to report that the defendant was stabbing her.

A Haverhill police officer responded two minutes later and encountered the defendant, who was covered in blood and holding a knife.  He told the officer that he had just killed his wife.  The victim was transported to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.  Her autopsy revealed 12 stab wounds.

The defendant argued at trial that his depression rendered him incapable of the mental state required for first-degree murder.  He called a number of mental health experts to support his argument, which was ultimately rejected by the jury.

This case is notable for the interesting evidentiary issue that was presented.  At trial, the Commonwealth sought to introduce the contents of the text message the victim sent to her son minutes before being stabbed by the defendant.  The defendant objected to its admission, arguing that it was hearsay (an out of court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter therein).  While it’s true that the text message did constitute hearsay, the trial judge ruled that it was admissible as a “spontaneous utterance exception” to the hearsay rule (also known as an excited utterance).

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed that the text message was admissible as an excited utterance, which is the first time a Massachusetts appellate court has approved the admission of any writing pursuant to the excited utterance exception.  An excited utterance occurs when: (1) there is a startling event that causes the observer to lose his or her normal reflective thought process; and (2) the statement was a spontaneous reaction to the startling event (and not the result of reflective thought).  The legal theory behind the excited utterance exception is that a witness to a startling event who talks about the event immediately loses the ability to fabricate the details of the event.  The Court here said that the victim’s stabbing was clearly a startling event, which satisfied the first prong of the test.  With respect to the second prong, the Court concluded that the text message was spontaneous, because: (1) text messages are sent immediately; and (2) mere minutes elapsed between the sending of the text message and the stabbing itself.

This ruling will give the Commonwealth additional ammunition to use against criminal defendants.  If you are charged with a crime, it is important that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who will assist you in challenging all of the evidence against you.