The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who was found guilty by jurors who were permitted by the judge to watch news coverage of the killing. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Martinez.
In July of 2010, the victim was sitting on his grandmother’s porch in Lawrence with his friend and his cousin. Out of nowhere, a man walked up to the porch, directed a racial slur toward the victim, and shot him in the head with a shotgun. The shooter then fled the area, shooting the gun as he ran away. Neither the victim’s friend nor his cousin were able to identify the shooter, although they provided a description of his physical characteristics to the police. Four surveillance cameras from nearby businesses captured the shooter as he ran to and from a car immediately before and after the shooting. However, the police were unable to identify a suspect based on the evidence. The victim died a few days after being shot.
Approximately nine months later, the defendant was watching television with his girlfriend’s mother when he asked her to change the channel. The girlfriend’s mother did so, and an “unsolved crime” news program was profiling the murder. As they watched the program, which showed the surveillance video of the shooter, the girlfriend’s mother asked the defendant if he had committed the crime. The defendant responded that he had killed the victim. The defendant then described the events as they unfolded in the surveillance video. He explained he was shooting his gun as he fled the scene because he was worried he would be shot or chased. During the program, the victim’s mother was interviewed and said the bullet had passed through her son’s head. The defendant told his girlfriend’s mother the bullet was a hollow-point and had therefore not exited the skull. The defendant also shared details related to the getaway driver’s behavior and his effort to hide evidence of the crime. The girlfriend’s mother ultimately contacted the police and reported the defendant’s confession to the crime. The defendant was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. A jury convicted him and he appealed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that it was inappropriate for the trial judge to allow the jury to view the news program, which included statements made by a narrator, the district attorney, and the victim’s mother. The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed and concluded that the trial judge had done a careful and effective editing and redaction of the tape that properly sanitized it for presentation to the jury. For example, the judge ordered the prosecutor to mute certain parts of the program and completely eliminated a picture of the victim’s mother holding his hand as he lay in a hospital bed. The judge ruled parts of the tape’s audio were admissible to provide context to the jury in explaining the manner in which the defendant confessed to the crime. The SJC agreed that the video was prejudicial to the defendant, but the probative value of the evidence outweighed the prejudicial effect (particularly given that the most inflammatory parts of the tape were redacted). Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.