The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a man’s conviction for first-degree murder, concluding that the cumulative errors by his defense attorney and the prosecutor deprived him of a fair trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Niemic.
The defendant was accused of fatally stabbing the victim in October of 2010 during a fight about a woman. The defendant started dating a woman named Lisa in June of 2010. He served two months in jail on an unrelated matter toward the end of the summer and when he was released, he learned that the victim had been flirting with Lisa. The defendant confronted the victim outside of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New Bedford. The defendant accused the victim of being disrespectful and a fight ensued. During the fight, the defendant stabbed the victim six times with a pocked knife, puncturing his heart and liver. The defendant died the same night.
The defendant threw the knife into a nearby wooded area where it was later recovered by the police. The police apprehended the defendant the next day and saw several fresh cuts on his hand. At his trial, the defendant testified that he was scared of the victim, who was older, bigger, and tougher than him. The defendant said during their argument, the victim began punching him and then pulled out a knife. The defendant grabbed the blade of the knife and pulled it away from the victim. He then began swinging the knife toward the victim in self-defense. One of the defendant’s friends testified that the victim had thrown the first punch and two months before the killing, the victim had threatened to stab the defendant. The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he appealed.
It turned out that the assistant district attorney who tried the case may have helped the defendant more than anyone else. The prosecutor made a number of inappropriate statements in his closing argument that contributed to the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to reverse the defendant’s murder conviction. The prosecutor told the jury the victim’s life mattered and that the (deceased) victim was asking for a fair and just verdict. The SJC noted that it is inappropriate for a prosecutor to ask a jury to give justice to the victim because it amounts to an improper appeal to sympathy for the victim. In this case, the prosecutor harped on the theme, arguing that justice was due to the civilians and paramedics who attempted to save the victim’s life, the police officers who investigated the case, and “to all of us.” The Court said the collective concern (by all the people who were touched by the murder) for the victim’s life was not legally relevant and should not have been mentioned in the prosecutor’s closing argument.
The Court also criticized the defense attorney for failing to request that the jury be told it could convict the defendant of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. The Court said the defendant was entitled to such a jury instruction and its omission, along with the prosecutor’s inappropriate closing argument, mandated a reversal on the murder conviction.
The Court gave the Commonwealth 14 days to decide between either retrying the defendant for murder or accepting a guilty verdict for manslaughter.