Massachusetts Appeals Court Reverses Assault Conviction After Trial Judge Improperly Limited Attorney’s Questioning

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed the convictions of a Springfield man, ruling the trial judge committed reversible error in refusing to allow testimony regarding statements the alleged victim made to the defendant’s attorney.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Wray

The defendant was convicted of assault and threatening to commit a crime following a dispute he had with his girlfriend in November of 2012.  Just before attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, the defendant saw his girlfriend hug another man.  The defendant became angry and told the girlfriend he was going to “fuck [her] up.”  The girlfriend made inconsistent statements to the police about whether the defendant had actually pushed her or just attempted to push her.  At trial, the girlfriend first testified she could not remember if the defendant had touched her but under further questioning from the prosecutor finally said the defendant had pushed her.  However, before the trial began, the girlfriend had told the defendant’s attorney that the defendant had not touched her.  Therefore, on cross-examination, the defense attorney attempted to ask the girlfriend about their conversation prior to the trial.  The prosecutor objected, arguing the girlfriend’s statements to the defense attorney were hearsay, and the judge agreed, prohibiting the questions.  Following his convictions, the defendant appealed.

The trial judge was wrong to conclude the girlfriend’s statements to the defense attorney were inadmissible.  The girlfriend’s statement at trial that the defendant touched her was different than the statement she gave to the defendant’s attorney on the morning of the trial.  Therefore, the statements to the defense attorney were admissible as impeachment evidence.  Anytime a witness previously made a statement that was inconsistent with that witness’ trial testimony, the opponent’s attorney can confront the witness with the prior statement.  The prior statement is not being offered for its truth, but rather to point out that there was a discrepancy in the witness’ story.  The attorney can then argue to the jury that the witness should not be believed because of the inconsistencies in the recitation of the facts.

The Commonwealth agreed on appeal that the trial judge should not have forbidden the defense attorney from asking the girlfriend about her pre-trial statements.  However, the Commonwealth asked the Appeals Court to affirm the convictions because the defense attorney had adequately undermined the girlfriend’s credibility on cross-examination.  The Appeals Court disagreed.  The Court noted that every defendant has a constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him, including the right to challenge the witness’ credibility by impeachment.  By taking away the defendant’s right to fully confront his girlfriend in court, the jury did not have the opportunity to effectively evaluate her credibility.  Because the girlfriend was the only witness in the case, the jury needed to find her credible in order to convict the defendant.  Accordingly, the defendant was denied his right to a fair trial and his convictions were reversed.

This situation comes up fairly frequently in court.  Alleged victims oftentimes cannot keep their stories straight and end up making various inconsistent statements during the course of the police investigation and trial.  A defense attorney’s ability to impeach these witnesses with prior inconsistent statements is a very important tool.