The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a young man who killed an 84-year-old Quincy woman with the hope of sharing in the proceeds of her estate. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lally.
The defendant was 20 years old in December of 2001 and was friends with the victim’s grand-nephew, Anthony. The defendant often slept over at the victim’s three-family home in Quincy (where Anthony also lived) and often said he wanted to kill the victim and share the inheritance Anthony was going to receive. The defendant theorized he could kill the victim by hitting her with a blunt object, positioning her body at the bottom of a set of stairs, and making it look like she had died as the result of a fall. The defendant set his plan into motion on December 19, 2001, when he hit the victim in the head with a frying pan. The defendant also hit her in the head with a tea kettle and finally suffocated her while saying, “Just go. Anthony wants it this way.” During the murder, Anthony and a third friend, Jason Weir, were present. After the victim died, Jason and the defendant positioned her body at the bottom of a stairwell. The defendant commented they needed to bury the items used in the attack at a nearby pond.
Later the same evening, the police were called to investigate the “accident.” A state trooper was suspicious of the crime scene, as there was no blood on the wallpaper in the stairwell. Additionally, during the murder, the defendant had sustained scratch marks on his face, a welt on his nose, and a bite mark on his arm. He told the police he was injured while fighting with Anthony the previous night. A full autopsy was performed and the medical examiner determined the victim’s cause of death was blunt neck trauma caused by falling down the stairs. Anthony subsequently inherited around $250,000 from the victim’s estate. He gave $5,000 and a truck to the defendant and $8,000 (and $50,000 worth of band equipment) to Jason. The defendant asserted they had “fooled everybody” and committed the “perfect crime.”
Unfortunately for the defendant, Jason confided in another friend that he had participated in the murder. That friend went to the police and later wore a wire to record conversations he had with Jason about the murder. The police subsequently drained a pond and found the frying pan and teapot used in the killing.
The defendant was charged with first-degree murder. Jason agreed to cooperate with the Commonwealth and received a 10-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying against the defendant and Anthony. The defendant contended at trial that Jason had killed the victim. The Commonwealth presented DNA evidence at trial establishing that forensic material taken from underneath the victim’s fingernails could not have come from Anthony or Jason, but the defendant could not be excluded as having contributed to the substance. Following his conviction for first-degree murder, the defendant appealed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was the trial judge allowed the Commonwealth to improperly introduce the DNA evidence. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed. The Court noted in cases where the Commonwealth presents evidence of a DNA match (in this case, that the defendant could not be excluded as a source), it is required to produce statistical evidence regarding the likelihood of a match occurring. This is a common sense rule, because the statistics establish the persuasiveness of the evidence. Suppose, for example, that forensic material is connected to a defendant by DNA testing. If the DNA profile occurs in one out of every three people, the evidence is almost useless. If, however, the DNA profile occurs in only one out of every ten million people, the material almost certainly belongs to the defendant. In this case, the Commonwealth’s expert testified the defendant might be the source of the forensic material discovered underneath the victim’s fingernails but did not provide any supporting statistics. The error was compounded when the prosecutor told the jury in her closing argument that the defendant could not be excluded as the major contributor to the material taken from the victim’s body.
Despite the clear error, the SJC ruled it had not deprived the defendant of a fair trial. There was no claim here that a mystery third party committed the murder, as the defendant argued Jason had been the killer (and Jason had been excluded as the source of the forensic material). Further, the defendant’s injuries connected him to the attack and there was other corroborating evidence (such as the defendant’s statements) that supported his conviction. Accordingly, while the admission of the DNA evidence was erroneous, it was not cause for reversal.
Cases involving DNA require experienced defense attorneys to work in conjunction with DNA experts to analyze the evidence and determine the best possible defense. If you are being investigated for committing a crime, it is essential that you immediately call a criminal defense attorney.