Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Orders New Trial for Convicted Murderer Based on Dead Witness’ Affidavit

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the murder conviction of an alleged drug dealer who was accused of shooting to death another drug dealer in a Boston apartment.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Drayton

The Commonwealth’s star witness at trial was a man named James Jackson.  Jackson testified that he allowed drug dealers to use his apartment to sell their drugs in exchange for free drugs and money.  The defendant and the victim both took advantage of Jackson’s hospitality.  At some point, Jackson told the victim he didn’t want him selling drugs out of the apartment anymore, and the victim became enraged and threatened to commit murder and arson.  Jackson testified at trial that he then went to the bathroom and heard a gunshot.  When he walked out of the bathroom, he saw the defendant shoot the victim five times.  There was virtually no physical evidence that corroborated Jackson’s story, which was particularly problematic because Jackson was a terrible witness.  His trial testimony was inconsistent with his previous statements and he was a longtime drug addict.  Nevertheless, the jury convicted the defendant of murder based almost entirely on Jackson’s testimony.

A year and a half after the defendant was convicted, a woman named Debra tracked down the defendant’s attorney and said Jackson had lied during the trial.  Debra signed an affidavit saying at the time of the shooting, she and Jackson were having sex and smoking crack in the bathroom.  There was no possibility, according to Debra, that either she or Jackson could have witnessed any part of the shooting.  Debra was motivated to come forward because she was dying of cancer and didn’t want the wrongful conviction on her conscience.  She died about two months after signing her affidavit.

A superior court judge allowed the defendant’s motion for a new trial, concluding that the defendant’s conviction may not have been just.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.  The Court first determined that Debra’s affidavit bears “persuasive assurances of trustworthiness.”  The Court pointed out that Debra did not have a motive to lie (she did not have any relationship with the defendant) and her illness provided her with motivation to tell the truth about the crime and clear her conscience.  The SJC made a point to note that this constitutional exception to the hearsay rule is very narrow and ordinarily will not be applicable.  However, given the specific facts of this case, Debra’s affidavit is admissible in court.

The Court also determined that the affidavit constituted newly-discovered evidence (meaning it was unknown to the defense and not reasonably discoverable before the trial) and it probably would have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberation.  The conviction rested on the story told by Jackson.  If Jackson was not to be believed, there was insufficient evidence to convict the defendant.  The Court correctly pointed out that Debra’s affidavit undermined the entire prosecution.

The defendant’s case will be returned to the superior court for a new trial.  It’s hard to imagine a jury convicting him based on the current state of the evidence.