Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules Sealing Criminal Record of Accused Murderer May Have Been Appropriate

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a superior court judge’s decision not to seal the criminal record of a man charged with murder, and remanded the case to the superior court for further consideration.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Doe

The petitioner was charged in 2010 with violently shaking his six-month-old son, causing his death.  The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office’s theory of the case was that the baby was the victim of “shaken baby syndrome,” which is a bogus junk science theory.  The judicial system is finally realizing convictions based on this make-believe science cannot stand, and the Supreme Judicial Court has recently reversed two cases involving shaken baby syndrome.  Meanwhile, a Massachusetts General pediatrician named Alice Newton was serving as an expert witness for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office on two high-profile shaken baby cases (including the petitioner’s case).  Dr. Newton concluded both babies had died as a result of being violently shaken by their caretakers and, as a result, the caretakers were both charged with murder.  When the Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s Office refused to support Dr. Newton’s diagnoses, the Commonwealth dismissed the murder charges in both cases.

After the petitioner’s case was dismissed, he filed a motion to seal his criminal record.  Until recently, there was no mechanism by which to seal a criminal record in Massachusetts.  However, a few years ago the Legislature realized the significant burdens the existence of a criminal record can have on an individual’s effort to get a job and find housing.  As a result, the Legislature passed a law that allows a judge the discretion to seal the criminal record of a defendant whose case has been resolved.  The law says judges should consider the following factors in deciding whether to seal a record: specific disadvantages the defendant identifies that arise from the existence of the criminal record; evidence the defendant has been rehabilitated (if he was convicted of a crime); the amount of time that has passed since the resolution of the case; and the reasons for the particular disposition of the case.  The petitioner’s primary argument here was that he would likely be unable to obtain employment in his field if potential employers saw his criminal record.  The petitioner is well educated and had worked at a university prior to his son’s death.  After he was cleared of wrongdoing, he did not look for work because he believed it would be futile as long as his criminal record was not sealed.  Further, he worried that any potential employers would forever keep a copy of his criminal record in their files, which would limit his future prospects for employment.  Finally, while the petitioner’s case had received substantial media attention, he believed employers who found information about him on the Internet would clearly understand the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office had dismissed his case because it couldn’t prove the allegations (which would not be clear from viewing his criminal record).

While the DA’s Office conceded it could not prove the case, it still objected to the sealing of the petitioner’s criminal record.  It was a predictably gutless decision by a gutless office (see here, here, here, and here) – maybe the office couldn’t prove the murder, but why not let the allegations linger to punish the petitioner anyway?  The superior court judge ultimately accepted the prosecutor’s argument that because the defendant had not proven he had actually attempted (and failed) to find work as a result of his criminal record, the sealing of his criminal record would be premature.  The Appeals Court rejected this rationale, holding that it was inconsistent with the Supreme Judicial Court’s standards for sealing a criminal record and the refusal to seal on this basis constituted an error of law.  The case was sent back to the superior court judge to allow her to reconsider her decision.