Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Murder Convictions Based in Part on Dead Codefendant’s Statements

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the second-degree murder convictions of a man who, along with his friend, killed two homeless men in Hingham in 2005.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Winquist

In May of 2005, the decomposing bodies of two men were discovered at Bare Cove Park in Hingham.  Authorities determined they had been dead for around three weeks and the cause of death was blunt force.  One of the victims was missing his hand.  The missing hand was found two months later in Bridgewater.

In 2007, the defendant and his friend (“codefendant”) were charged with the murders.  While in jail awaiting trial, the codefendant committed suicide.  The evidence at trial established that the defendant lived within walking distance to the area where the victims were murdered.  Around the time of the murders, the defendant and his codefendant asked their friend for a ride.  The friend dropped the defendant and the codefendant off near the Bare Cove Park.  When they were next seen, they were covered in blood and carrying baseball bats.  The codefendant told the defendant that he had “made his bones,” which is an expression meaning that the codefendant had killed someone and was worthy to join a jailhouse group.  The codefendant’s friend then drove him to a remote area where the codefendant dug a hole and buried a bag containing the hand.

Additional evidence at trial proved that the defendant and codefendant had bragged to several people about the killing and were preparing to present the severed hand to another friend who was about to be released from prison.  Meanwhile, the codefendant was imprisoned on an unrelated case.  While in prison, the codefendant wrote a letter to the defendant on the second anniversary of the murders.  The codefendant wrote that the defendant had “made [his] bones.”  The letter also commented that there were several witnesses who could tell the police the details of the murder, and the codefendant provided the addresses of those witnesses to “take out.”

Although the codefendant had killed himself prior to the trial, his two statements about “making bones” – one on the night of the murder and the other in the letter he wrote to the defendant – were admitted at the defendant’s trial.  The defendant objected to their admission.  The Commonwealth argued that the statements were properly admitted under the coconspirator statement exception to the hearsay rule.  The exception states that out-of-court statements made by joint venturers are admissible against the other defendants if the statements were made during the pendency of the criminal act and in furtherance of it.  In this case, the Appeals Court agreed with the trial judge that the statements regarding “making bones” qualified as coconspirator statements and were properly admitted.  The defendant argued that the letter was written two years after the murders, long after the conspiracy had ended.  However, the Court ruled that the defendant and codefendant had an express original agreement to work together to cover up their crime.  The letter, where the codefendant referenced eliminating witnesses, was designed as part of the coverup.  Therefore, the statement war properly admitted and the defendant’s convictions were upheld.

The importance of litigating pretrial evidentiary motions cannot be emphasized enough.  Trials are often won and lost on motions related to the admissibility of evidence, and this case presents a good example.