Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction Against Haverhill Man Who Killed Girlfriend

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the murder conviction against a Haverhill man who killed his girlfriend in 2002.  The defendant had argued at trial that he was temporarily insane at the time of the killing, as he was suffering from the side-effects of an antiviral drug he had been taking to treat his hepatitis C.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Facella

On April 25, 2002, the defendant drove the victim to the Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill.  The victim had no pulse and was bruised all over her body.  The blunt force trauma to her head and face was so severe that her head was swollen to two or three times its normal size.  Doctors were able to restore the victim’s pulse and transport her to a hospital in Boston for further treatment.  After arriving in Boston, the victim died.  Meanwhile, the defendant told a series of stories to the police regarding the victim’s injuries.  He told one police officer the victim had been missing for at least three days, and when she returned home it looked like she had been beaten up.  He then said after finding the victim wandering around the backyard with serious injuries to her face, he helped her inside and placed her on the couch until he realized she needed medical attention.  Finally, he said the victim passed out on the living room floor after coming home drunk and beaten up.  The cops noticed the defendant had swollen knuckles along with dried blood on his chest, ear, arm, and shoulder.  He was arrested after the victim was pronounced dead.  A subsequent search of the defendant’s home revealed the presence of blood in at least four different rooms.  An autopsy confirmed the victim had been badly beaten and sustained a number of injuries over her entire body that had resulted in her death.  Ultimately, brain hemorrhaging resulted in brain swelling, which resulted in respiratory or cardiac arrest that killed the victim.

At trial, the defendant did not deny he had killed the victim.  Instead, he asserted that the interferon he had taken to treat his hepatitis C had rendered him unable to control his actions, and he was therefore not criminally responsible for killing the victim.  This is also known as the temporary insanity defense.  The defendant presented two medical expert witnesses who described the possible side-effects of the hepatitis C medication, which included mood alteration, depression, aggression, and impulsivity.  In a nutshell, according to the defendant, he had been unable to form the necessary intent to kill the victim.  After an Essex Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of murder, he appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed his conviction.

The most interesting issue on appeal was whether the trial judge had properly allowed the prosecutor to admit evidence that the defendant had beaten women he had dated in the past.  After the defendant asserted he was not criminally responsible as a result of taking his hepatitis C medication, the prosecutor introduced evidence that he had beaten two ex-girlfriends prior to taking the medication at issue in this case.  One ex-girlfriend testified the defendant severely beat her during their relationship between 1978 and 1983.  Evidence regarding a beating of another ex-girlfriend in 1989 was also admitted at the defendant’s trial.  The defendant argued this “prior bad act” evidence was unfairly prejudicial.  In Massachusetts, a prosecutor may not introduce evidence against a defendant simply to establish he has a bad character or a propensity to commit crimes.  However, such evidence is admissible to prove a defendant’s pattern of operation or common scheme.  In this case, the Court ruled, the evidence was admissible primarily to rebut the defendant’s argument that his abusive conduct toward the victim was caused by his medication.  After all, if he severely beat two other ex-girlfriends when he was not taking the medication, the jury could infer the medication had nothing to do with his violent conduct in this case.  Accordingly, the Court found the prior bad act evidence was properly admitted in this case.

The defendant received the mandatory sentence of life in prison.