The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday upheld the convictions of a man who set fire to a truck belonging to a man who had sexually assaulted his sister earlier in the evening. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Balboni.
Defendant Samuel Doxsey and codefendant Scott Balboni were convicted by a Middlesex Superior Court jury of malicious burning of property and malicious destruction of property. Doxsey was a student at the University of New Hampshire in 2009. On April 4th of that year, his sister attended a party thrown by Daniel Feehan at his apartment in Lexington. When the defendant’s sister was leaving the party, Feehan pulled down her shirt and exposed her breast. The sister then called the defendant, who was in Durham, New Hampshire, and reported the assault to him. The defendant and his sister spoke by phone at approximately 12:45 a.m. on April 5th. At 3:07 a.m., two young men entered a Lexington gas station and purchased a one-gallon gas can. The gas can was paid for with a credit card issued to the codefendant. A couple of minutes later, approximately one gallon of gas was purchased at the same gas station and paid for with the defendant’s credit card. Less than an hour later, the Lexington fire department was called to an apartment complex where a pickup truck was fully engulfed in flames. The truck was owned by Daniel Feehan’s father.
Lexington Fire Captain John Wilson conducted an investigation into the fire and concluded it had been intentionally set. When he arrived, Wilson saw flames on the exterior of the truck’s doors and determined the fire had started in the back of the passenger compartment. While the captain was unable to definitively rule out an accidental cause of the fire, he considered that the truck had not been operated for about four hours, the keys were not in the ignition, and there was a gas can (which contained a small amount of gasoline) lying near the burning truck. Finally, the captain observed uneven liquid patterns running down the surface of the truck, suggesting a liquid accelerant had been used to spread the fire. Following their convictions, the defendant and codefendant appealed.
The defendant argued the Commonwealth had improperly determined his location on the evening of the fire by obtaining his cell phone records. Cellular site location information (CSLI) is able to approximately locate the position of a person speaking on a cell phone based on which cellular towers the phone is using to transmit the call. In this case, around the time the defendant was first speaking to his sister, his phone was connected to cell towers in Durham, New Hampshire. However, shortly before the fire was discovered, the defendant’s phone was connected to a cell tower in Waltham, Massachusetts (which is close to Lexington). The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has previously ruled the Commonwealth ordinarily must obtain a search warrant, supported by probable cause, to gain access to the CSLI of a defendant. The Appeals Court had no problem concluding there was probable cause here to justify the Commonwealth obtaining the defendant’s CSLI. The evidence established the victim’s truck had probably been intentionally burned. The defendant’s sister had been recently assaulted by the victim (which established the defendant’s motive to burn the truck). The defendant’s credit card had been used to purchase a small amount of gasoline shortly before the fire and at a gas station near the crime scene. All of this evidence established the defendant’s CSLI would likely contain relevant evidence of his whereabouts on the evening in question and allow police to determine whether he was in close proximity to the victim’s truck as it was torched.
The defendant also argued the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support the jury’s guilty findings. The Appeals Court disagreed. While it was a circumstantial case, the defendant had the motive, opportunity, and means to set the fire, and the jury had properly convicted him.