The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the murder conviction against Brockton man despite acknowledging multiple errors made by his attorney at trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Montrond.
The defendant started dating the victim in 1997 and they had two children together. When they broke up in 2002, the victim and the children moved to Ohio and the victim had another baby with someone else. The victim and the three kids subsequently moved to South Carolina, but they visited Massachusetts every summer to spend time with the defendant and his family. In 2006, the victim’s sister discovered the defendant was listed on the website MassMostWanted, which provides details of people who are wanted by Massachusetts law enforcement authorities. The sister told the victim, who promptly turned the defendant into the police. The defendant was released on bail and the following summer, the victim again traveled to Brockton to spend time with the defendant and his family. During the evening of August 15, 2007, the victim was on the phone with her sister and the sister heard the defendant call the victim a “snitch.” About an hour and a half later, the defendant shot the victim in the head and killed her. The defendant’s parents rushed downstairs and saw the defendant screaming that the shooting had been an accident. The parents put the gun in a plastic bag and placed it inside a kitchen cabinet. The defendant’s sister was summonsed to the scene and when she arrived she called 911 to report the shooting. She told the dispatcher the defendant said he had been playing with the gun and accidentally shot the victim in the head. According to the defendant (as told by his sister), he thought the gun’s safety was on when he playfully pointed the gun at the victim and pulled the trigger. The defendant argued at trial the shooting had been an accident. The jury didn’t buy it and convicted him of first-degree murder. The defendant appealed.
On appeal, the defendant contended his trial attorney had been ineffective for failing to introduce evidence that he had been intoxicated on the night in question. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed the defendant’s lawyer’s decision not to offer evidence of the defendant’s intoxication was manifestly unreasonable and therefore error. However, the Court relied on an old favorite – the doctrine of harmless error – to affirm the murder conviction. The Court said it was “substantially confident” the defendant would have been convicted even if the intoxication evidence had been admitted. The Court said evidence of the defendant’s motive was solid and the Commonwealth’s theory that the defendant shot the victim in revenge after she turned him into the police was “compelling.” Therefore, said the Court, evidence of the defendant’s intoxication “likely” would not have changed the verdict.
The Court also held it was error for the defendant’s attorney not to object to evidence of the defendant’s inclusion on MassMostWanted. The Court said the probative value of such evidence was outweighed by its prejudicial nature. Nevertheless, the Court concluded that this mistake also constituted harmless error.
This case is a good example of how hard it is to reverse a conviction on appeal. Even when multiple errors are present, appellate courts very frequently decline to reverse convictions.