Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules the Admission of Autopsy Photo Was Appropriate in Attleboro Murder Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of an Attleboro man who argued that the admission of the victim’s autopsy photograph had denied him the opportunity to have a fair trial  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Carney.

The victim was a woman who had significant medical issues, including obesity.  She lived in a single-family home in Attleboro with her son, Kenneth.  Kenneth acted as a caretaker for his mother, whose health limited her mobility.  In order to help with her finances, the victim rented out the home’s bedrooms to boarders.  The defendant was friends with Kenneth and at some point moved in with him and the victim.  The defendant and the victim had a good relationship when he first moved in, although the defendant sympathized with Kenneth’s obligation to take care of her.

The victim was prescribed several medications to help manage her medical conditions.  After the defendant moved in, some of her pills started to disappear.  A shotgun belonging to Kenneth also went missing.  Kenneth and the victim blamed one of the other boarders and evicted him.  Kenneth took good care of the defendant by paying for his living expenses.  Kenneth also began taking some of the victim’s Oxycontin and Vicodin pills and giving them to the defendant.  The defendant became addicted to the pills.  Eventually, depression overtook the defendant, as he was unhappy about his job, his lack of a car, and the fact that he was behind in his rent payments to the victim.  One evening after Kenneth left the house, the defendant went into the victim’s room and shot her in the head with a shotgun.  The victim died from her injuries.  The defendant considered killing himself, but ultimately couldn’t do it.  He wrote a note to Kenneth apologizing for the murder, but suggesting that Kenneth’s life would improve if he no longer had to care for the victim.

The defendant’s appeal focused on the trial judge’s decision to allow the prosecutor to introduce a gory autopsy photograph of the victim’s head injury.  This issue arises in most cases where the victim dies (typically in murder and motor vehicle homicide cases).  The defendant always argues that the autopsy photo is so gruesome that the jury will be overcome with emotion and unable to render a reasoned verdict based only on the analysis of the evidence.  The question for the judge is whether the evidentiary value of the photograph outweighs the danger of unfair prejudice to the defendant.

In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the trial judge that the photograph was relevant in determining whether the defendant killed the victim with deliberate premeditation (which is an element of first-degree murder).  The defendant’s attorney suggested in his opening statement that the defendant accidentally shot the victim, which was contradicted by the positioning of the victim’s body in the photograph.  The Court also pointed out that the photograph that was admitted as evidence was shot from an angle that minimized the graphic nature of the injury.  The judge did not allow the photograph to be handled by the jurors and told them that they were not permitted to be swayed by their emotions.  The SJC concluded that the precautions taken by the trial judge protected the defendant’s right to a fair trial.