The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld a murder conviction against a Fall River man who shot to death his neighbor, despite evidence that the jury deliberations had been tainted by an improper outside influence. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Miller.
The defendant and his girlfriend lived together in the same apartment complex as the victim. The defendant and the victim were friends until one day when the victim used the defendant’s bathroom when he wasn’t home (the defendant’s girlfriend let him into their apartment). The defendant and the victim began an argument, which ultimately led to the victim pointing a gun at the defendant’s apartment and threatening to cause “problems” if the defendant and his girlfriend did not move. The following day, the defendant shot and killed the victim on a sidewalk at the apartment complex. Several people witnessed the murder and one of the witnesses identified the defendant as the shooter. The defendant’s girlfriend picked him up in her car within minutes of the murder and the defendant, who was wiping blood off of his face, told her he “did what [he] had to do.” At trial, another of the defendant’s neighbors testified he had given the defendant a rifle two weeks before the murder in exchange for crack cocaine. The defendant was arrested and held without bail. While in jail awaiting trial, the defendant sent a letter to a relative asking that his stepfather be instructed not to testify before the grand jury or at the defendant’s trial. The letter was intercepted by jail staff members and presented to the jury at the defendant’s trial. A Bristol County superior court jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.
The most interesting appellate issue involved the jury’s exposure to extraneous material during its deliberations. At trial, a witness testified she had seen the defendant and his friend handling the murder weapon prior to the killing. There was a dispute as to whether the witness really saw the murder weapon or, as argued by the defendant, she saw him with a BB gun that looked like the murder weapon. In response to the dispute, a juror brought a magazine into the deliberation room that had pictures of BB guns in order to prove to the other jurors that some BB guns look like real guns. The magazine had not been introduced as evidence. Following the guilty verdict, one of the jurors contacted the defendant’s legal team and told them about the presence of the magazine during deliberations. The defendant thereafter filed a motion for a new trial which was denied by the trial judge.
The Supreme Judicial Court has previously established a protocol to be followed when there is an allegation that deliberating jurors have been exposed to extraneous material. First, the defendant needs to establish by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that extraneous material was introduced to the jurors. In this case, the judge found that the magazine was extraneous and that it had been passed around the jury deliberation room. Once the defendant has proven the jury’s exposure to the extraneous material, the Commonwealth is then obligated to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not prejudiced by the improper conduct of the jury. In this case, the trial judge concluded the defendant was not prejudiced and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed. The Court noted the strength of the Commonwealth’s case and pointed out the question of whether a BB gun looks like a real gun was not an important issue at trial. Accordingly, the defendant is not entitled to a new trial and his murder verdict was supported by the evidence.
It is really hard to convince a trial court (or the appellate courts) that a convicted defendant is entitled to a new trial as a result of juror misconduct. The judicial system has an interest in protecting the finality of verdicts, and improper actions of jurors need to be egregious before a judge will consider reversing a conviction. The nature of the juror misconduct in this case was simply not egregious enough.