Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction of 17-Year-Old Boy in Lawrence Killing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a 17-year-old boy who allegedly shot the victim in the head.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Penn.

The defendant was charged with murder and firearms offenses following his participation in a fight in Lawrence.  The defendant’s friend, Benjamin Serrano, had dated a woman named Jennifer Suarez for four years before she broke up with him in January of 2004.  She started dating the victim shortly thereafter and Serrano was angry and jealous, threatening to kill the victim.  On April 1, 2004, Serrano was looking for Suarez at her cousin’s apartment.  Unbeknownst to Serrano, the victim was inside the apartment.  Serrano left the apartment and confronted the victim’s friends, who were waiting in a car in the apartment complex’s parking lot.  When Serrano pulled out a gun, the victim came into the parking lot and positioned himself between his friends and Serrano.  Serrano said he wanted to fight the victim and handed his gun to the defendant, who had been standing in a nearby alley.  During the ensuing fist fight, the victim slammed Serrano to the ground and punched him repeatedly in the face and stomach before standing up and quickly walking away.

Meanwhile, the victim’s friends fled the scene during the fight.  One of his friends said he ran away and assumed the victim would follow him.  As he was running, the friend heard a single gunshot and ran back to find the victim lying on the sidewalk.  An independent witness, who was pumping gas, witnessed the murder.  He testified that he saw the victim running down the street when he suddenly stopped and turned around.  A second man was following him and he and the victim started talking to each other.  The victim stood with his hands above his waist and the second man walked right up to him, where he swung his right hand in the air and pointed an object at the victim’s head.  The witness heard a gunshot and the victim immediately fell down.  The shooter walked back in the direction from which he came.  The witness said it was dark and drizzling at the time of the shooting, and he was standing approximately 200 feet away.  He could not identify the shooter other than to say that he was wearing a black or dark colored winter coat with a hood over his head (a description that could describe either the defendant or Serrano).  He said the shooter was considerably taller than the victim.  The victim and Serrano were approximately the same size and the defendant was about five inches taller than the victim.  Next to a bloodstain left by the victim on the sidewalk, the police found a Virgin Mary medallion that belonged to Serrano.  The medical examiner concluded that the victim died of a single gunshot wound to the head.

The police found Serrano nearby and searched him, finding no weapons.  The defendant traveled to Pennsylvania a couple of days after the murder and was staying with his mother’s friend when he was arrested.  He initially gave an alibi to the police that failed to check out, before admitting that he was at the scene of the murder.  He told the police that he had the gun, things got crazy, and he didn’t know what to do.  At his trial, the defendant testified that he returned Serrano’s gun to him after Serrano’s fist fight with the victim.  The defendant and Serrano walked in different directions and the defendant then heard a popping noise.

Following his conviction, the defendant appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain the murder conviction against him.  The question on appeal was whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the Commonwealth proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Supreme Judicial Court conceded that Serrano had the stronger motivation to kill the victim, and it was a medallion belonging to Serrano, not the defendant, that was found at the murder scene.  Additionally, it was Serrano, not the defendant, who had previously threatened to kill the victim  However, the Court said the jury could have credited the independent witness’ testimony that the shooter was taller than the victim.  Further, the independent witness said the shooter was wearing a hood, as was the defendant earlier in the evening.  The Court also pointed out that the defendant’s flight from the state was meaningful consciousness of guilt evidence and the defendant would not have felt the need to flee if he had not shot the victim.  The defendant’s statement to the police that he “had the gun” and “things just got crazy” was consistent with the defendant following the victim with the gun and instinctively shooting him as the situation spiraled out of control.  The Court ruled that while the evidence did not eliminate the possibility that Serrano was the shooter, it also allowed for the jury’s conclusion that the defendant killed the victim.

The defendant was sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.  However, after he was sentenced, the United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court both ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility for parole are unconstitutional when imposed upon juveniles.  Because the defendant was 17 years old at the time of the murder, he will now be re-sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The evidence here was awfully shaky, and there is a decent possibility that the jury convicted the wrong person.  This case represents another example of a defendant hurting himself by talking to the police.  By offering conflicting stories of his whereabouts on the night of the murder and then by admitting he was present with the gun, the defendant greatly reduced his chances of winning the case.