Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Murder Conviction in New Bedford Killing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed the murder conviction of a defendant who beat to death a New Bedford man with a hammer.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gardner

The defendant and the victim were meeting at the defendant’s ex-wife’s New Bedford house in November of 2011 to participate in a drug deal.  When the victim didn’t come home later in the day, his girlfriend called the police.  Four days later, police officers in Fairfield, Connecticut found the victim’s car in a rest area next to Route 95.  The defendant was sitting in the driver’s seat and when he saw the police he fled the scene, driving more than 100 miles per hour and colliding with another car and with a police officer.  The defendant eventually abandoned the car and ran into a building.  He was arrested shortly thereafter when the cops spotted him walking through a nearby town.  Two Massachusetts police officers met the defendant in Connecticut, advised him of his Miranda rights, and interviewed him.  The defendant said the victim had been driving to Florida and offered to drop him (the defendant) off in Pennsylvania.  They stopped in Connecticut and were eating in a restaurant at the rest stop when they spotted the police cruiser.  The defendant decided to flee alone in the victim’s car.  Meanwhile, the New Bedford Police Department contacted the defendant’s ex-wife and obtained consent from her to search her house.  During the search, the cops found the victim’s body wrapped in plastic and hidden underneath the basement staircase.  There was significant blood in the kitchen and on the basement stairs.  The medical examiner testified that the victim died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head (which resulted in brain injuries).  The victim had sustained 19 lacerations and four skull fractures.  He was also missing multiple teeth that were later found in his stomach (the medical examiner said he had swallowed the teeth before he died).

The defendant was charged with first-degree murder.  At his trial, the defendant testified that he had killed the victim in self-defense.  According to the defendant, he had been buying heroin from the victim when a dispute arose about money.  The victim attacked the defendant and the defendant fought back, eventually hitting the victim in the head repeatedly with a hammer.  The defendant admitted his statement to the police in Connecticut had been a lie.  The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he appealed.

The primary appellate argument was whether the prosecutor had committed error by questioning the defendant about why he did not report the incident to the police.  The prosecutor repeatedly asked the defendant whether he had called the police, and whether he had considered calling the police while he was hiding the victim’s body.  The Supreme Judicial Court concluded the prosecutor should not have been allowed to ask the defendant about his pre-arrest silence.  The Court pointed out there are many innocent reasons why a defendant would choose to not contact the police, including: the defendant’s knowledge that he is not obligated to talk to the cops; his knowledge that any potential statement could be used against him; and his belief that his effort to exonerate himself would be unsuccessful.  The exception to this rule is when it would be “natural” for the defendant to have called the police given the circumstances of the case.  For example, if a person accidentally shoots his friend and does not call the police, the prosecutor can question him about his pre-arrest silence because it would be natural for that person to call the police to seek help for his accidentally-shot friend.  In this case, the Court concluded that even if the defendant had acted in self-defense, there are other reasons why he would not have contacted the police.  The defendant was addicted to drugs, he had stolen the victim’s car, and he had violated a restraining order by spending time at his ex-wife’s house.  It was improper, therefore, for the prosecutor to question the defendant about his failure to call the police prior to his arrest.

Despite this error, the Court upheld the conviction after concluding the erroneously-admitted evidence did not result in a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.  The evidence of the defendant’s guilt was so overwhelming that the prosecutor’s inappropriate questions probably made no difference.  Accordingly, the defendant will spend the rest of his life in prison.