The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction against a Charlestown man who participated in the home invasion of an alleged drug dealer that resulted in the alleged drug dealer’s son’s death. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sullivan.
On February 18, 2011, two masked men burst into John Vieira’s West Medford home. According to the Supreme Judicial Court opinion, police investigators knew Vieira to be a drug dealer. Vieira’s adult son was with him near the front door and Vieira’s wife was in the bedroom. As they entered, the two masked men demanded money and jewelry. A fight ensued during which Vieira’s son struck one of the assailants in the head and shoulders with a mallet and a pipe. At some point, one of the robbers shot Vieira and his son. Vieira’s son was pronounced dead at the scene. Despite being shot in the head, Vieira survived. The masked men fled the scene. Around the same time period, the defendant’s friend noticed he had a small cut and some blood on his head. He said he had been involved in a fight in East Boston.
The police recovered several items from the murder scene, including a mallet, a pipe, two hats, a jacket hood, and a mask. A state forensics expert was able to extract DNA from the evidence. The DNA taken from one of the hats, the mallet, and the pipe matched the defendant’s DNA profile (the defendant’s DNA was included in a national DNA database). The defendant was arrested. A Middlesex County superior court jury convicted him of first-degree felony murder and he appealed.
The defendant first argued the evidence was insufficient to convict him of felony murder. Felony murder occurs when a defendant intentionally commits an underlying felony during which a death occurs. In this case, the Court easily concluded the defendant was participating in a home invasion that resulted in Vieira’s son’s death. In order to prove a home invasion, the Commonwealth needed to establish the defendant: entered Vieira’s home; knew or had reason to know someone would be inside; was armed with a dangerous weapon when he entered; and used force or threatened the imminent use of force on the person inside the home (or intentionally injured the victim). Because the DNA on the mallet and pipe matched the defendant’s DNA profile, the jury could have properly concluded the defendant was the person involved in the fight with the victim.
The defendant also challenged the introduction of the Commonwealth’s most important evidence – the DNA results. The SJC agreed the prosecutor introduced improper evidence to the jury regarding the DNA database. The prosecutor was permitted to introduce evidence that the DNA recovered from the crime scene matched the defendant’s DNA profile. However, the prosecutor did not call a witness who is responsible for maintaining the national database where the defendant’s DNA was found. The defendant was therefore deprived of his right to cross-examine the witnesses against him when the prosecutor introduced evidence that the defendant’s DNA was located in the database. Nevertheless, the Court concluded the error was harmless and the jury would have reached the same conclusion if the error had not been made. Therefore, the defendant’s conviction was permitted to stand and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.