Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Witness’ ID of Gun is Inadmissible in Part Because of Improper Police Comments

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld a superior court judge’s decision to prohibit a witness in a murder case from offering an opinion that a gun (shown to her in a police photograph) was used by the defendant during the crime.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Thomas

The defendant was a backseat passenger in a car being driven by a man named Travis.  Travis’s cousin, Brianna, was sitting in the front passenger seat.  As the case traveled through a neighborhood in Springfield, a gunfight erupted between the defendant and a crowd of bystanders.  The defendant started the fight when he leaned out of his window in the back seat of the car and fired between two and four shots at the group of people.  In response, one of the bystanders returned fire, shooting Travis in the head and killing him.  The defendant was charged with second-degree murder.  The Commonwealth alleges the defendant set into motion a series of events that led to Travis’s death, which makes the defendant criminally liable.  The night of the murder, Brianna met with Springfield Police detectives and identified the defendant as the initial shooter.  As a result, the police obtained an arrest warrant for the defendant.  The cops found him two days later and arrested him following a chase through Springfield.  At one point during the chase, the defendant drove through a grassy area.  When the police later searched the area, they found a nine millimeter handgun with a loaded magazine containing 12 rounds of ammunition.  The next day, the police again interviewed Brianna and showed her a picture of the gun they found in the grass.  The cops asked her if it was the gun the defendant used the night of the crime and Brianna said, “that’s probably it, yup.”  However, as Briana continued to talk to the detectives, she asked them if it was the defendant’s gun and the detectives suggested it was.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress Brianna’s identification of the gun.  A superior court judge found the police questioning of Brianna (including their use of a single photograph of a gun) was unduly suggestive.  Further, Brianna’s identification was tainted by the detectives’ repeated statements affirming her identification was correct.  Because the identification may have been unfair, unreliable, and prejudicial, the judge ruled Brianna’s identification cannot be presented to the jury.  The Commonwealth appealed the suppression order and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.  The Court noted Brianna saw the defendant’s gun only after he started shooting, after which she ducked down.  She was unable to provide any description of the gun other than it was big and black and looked like the guns being carried by the detectives.  During the same conversation, she said the photo was “probably” the gun but then asked the detectives if she was correct.  Because Brianna’s identification of the gun was unreliable, and aided by the detectives’ encouraging comments, the Court concluded the superior court judge properly suppressed the identification.

This case is rare in that most identification procedures involve the identification of the defendant (or another person).  Identification of inanimate objects is relatively unusual.  The Court’s ruling does not prohibit the Commonwealth from introducing the gun into evidence at trial – it only prohibits Brianna’s statement that the gun in the photo is the same gun used by the defendant.