Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms South Boston Man’s Murder Conviction of Neighborhood Drug Dealer

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the murder conviction of a South Boston man who killed his 65-year-old neighbor who sometimes sold him drugs.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cassino.

In August of 2011, the victim’s body was discovered in her apartment.  She was found by her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, who were checking up on her after they were unable to contact her.  The victim’s apartment was a complete mess and it was immediately clear a violent struggle had occurred.  The victim’s body was lying under a blanket on a couch and there was blood all over the place.  The victim had suffered severe head trauma and had been dead for several days.  There were crack pipes and needles strewn about.  The victim sometimes sold her prescription Klonopin pills and used the money to buy crack cocaine.  The victim had previously sold drugs to the defendant and, after a period of sobriety, the defendant had started using drugs again about a week before the victim was murdered.  The defendant admitted that around the time the victim was murdered, he met with her to try to buy her Klonopin pills, but he didn’t have any money.  He had previously stolen pills from the victim and when she was murdered, he became the investigating police officers’ prime suspect.

When the police went looking for the defendant, they learned he had been involuntarily committed to the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center.  The defendant’s mother had had him committed to the facility shortly before the victim’s body was discovered.  In Massachusetts, a family member can commit an individual to a substance abuse center against his will if he has a serious drug or alcohol problem.  When the police arrived at the facility to interview the defendant, they asked the staff to see the clothes in which he had arrived.  A staff member retrieved the defendant’s clothes and shoes and the cops saw reddish brown stains on the shoes that were consistent with blood.  They subsequently obtained a warrant that allowed them to seize the shoes.  Testing later revealed the blood on the shoes belonged to the victim.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police had viewed his shoes in violation of his constitutional rights.  The defendant reasoned if the police had not viewed his shoes, officers would not have had cause to obtain a search warrant (which then led to other search warrants that resulted in the recovery of the murder weapon – a baseball bat – from an apartment in which the defendant had been staying).  The motion posed an interesting question of whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the security of his clothes that were taken from him when he was involuntarily committed to the drug treatment facility.  A superior court judge denied the motion to suppress and the defendant appealed following his conviction for first-degree murder.

The Supreme Judicial Court took the interesting suppression issue and… declined to decide it.  Instead of determining whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the clothes that were taken from him, the Court considered whether the search warrant application contained enough evidence to issue the warrant even without the officers’ observations of blood stains on the defendant’s shoes.  If the search warrant application was sufficient without the blood evidence, the possible illegal actions of the cops in viewing the shoes without a warrant didn’t matter.  In this case, the warrant application asserted the defendant had previously stolen drugs from the victim.  He admitted he was with her around the time she was murdered.  He said he would have liked to buy her prescription medication but he was broke.  He was committed to a drug facility shortly after the murder occurred.  The crime scene suggested anyone who had participated in the murder would have had blood evidence on his or her clothes.  Based on all these facts, the Court concluded there was probable cause for the warrant to have issued without the bloody shoe evidence.  Accordingly, the motion to suppress was properly denied and the defendant was properly convicted.