The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a mentally ill woman’s murder conviction, despite acknowledging her trial attorney had improperly failed to consult with a mental health expert prior to trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Field.
The defendant suffered from bipolar disorder and had a history of substance abuse. She met the victim through Alcoholics Anonymous, and the victim served as the AA sponsor for the defendant’s longtime girlfriend. When the defendant and her girlfriend broke up in 2010, the defendant blamed the victim for the disintegration of the relationship. The night before the victim died, the defendant posed a cryptic message on her Facebook page, indicating something big was going to happen the following day. She also wrote a letter to her ex-girlfriend, saying the victim would “get what she deserves” for contributing to the defendant’s relationship problems. In the letter, the defendant also told her ex-girlfriend she had “snapped” as a result of her bipolar disorder. The next morning, the defendant visited the victim’s Bridgewater apartment and fatally stabbed her nine times in the chest, neck, and back. The defendant then drove, covered in blood, to the Brockton Police Station. When officers approached her in the parking lot, the defendant said she had just killed someone. She was able to provide the victim’s name and address to the officers, who traveled to the victim’s apartment and found her body. After receiving her Miranda rights, the defendant made additional incriminating statements. After a jury convicted her of first-degree murder, the defendant appealed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument involved her trial lawyer’s failure to consult with a mental health expert before the trial. At trial, the defense attorney did not call his own expert to testify about the defendant’s mental state. Instead, the attorney cross-examined the Commonwealth’s expert about the seriousness of the defendant’s bipolar disorder. The Supreme Judicial Court said the defendant’s lawyer should have consulted with a mental health expert. However, the Court said such a consultation would not have made a difference in the outcome of the trial. The Court characterized the evidence against the defendant as “overwhelming.” The evidence clearly established not only that the defendant killed the victim, but that the murder was deliberately premeditated. The defendant argued on appeal that consultation with a mental health expert would have provided her trial attorney with ammunition to suppress the videotaped statements she made to the police. However, the defense attorney testified at a hearing that he wanted the jury to watch the videos and observe the defendant’s bizarre conduct. The attorney thought the jurors might conclude, based on the videos, that the defendant did not kill with premeditation. The SJC concluded that the attorney had made a tactical decision that was justified by the evidence. Accordingly, the defendant’s murder conviction was upheld and she will spend the rest of her life in prison.
Cases involving mental health defenses present challenging decisions related to trial strategy. If you are facing criminal charges and you have a history of mental health problems, you should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.