The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a local man’s motor vehicle homicide conviction for running over a bicyclist following a night of drinking. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ahern.
On the evening of September 13, 2012, the defendant went to the Slate Bar & Grill on High Street in Boston. The bartender, believing the defendant was one of the owners of the restaurant, brought a bottle of champagne to his table. He drank most of the bottle himself and the bartender then poured him another glass from a second bottle of champagne. The trial evidence established the defendant was at the bar for three hours, leaving around midnight. Approximately 15 minutes later, Boston cops came upon the defendant’s truck stopped on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. On the ground nearby was a man who had been riding his bicycle before being struck by the defendant’s vehicle. The victim’s wife testified that he had ridden his bike to go fishing earlier in the evening. The victim was unresponsive at the accident scene and the responding EMTs could not save his life. The defendant was sitting against a fence and the EMTs observed that he had slurred speech. He was transported to the hospital for treatment. No fewer than seven witnesses – police officers, EMTs, and doctors – concluded the defendant was drunk. Witnesses testified at trial that in addition to his slurred speech, the defendant appeared confused, was unable to follow simple commands, and was unsteady on his feet. A state police accident reconstruction team concluded the victim had been riding his bicycle in a straight line on the right side of the road when the defendant, who was driving at least 50 miles per hour (in a 30-mile-per-hour zone), slammed into him from behind. A jury found the defendant guilty of motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of alcohol. However, the trial judge allowed the defendant’s motion for a new trial, concluding the prosecutor’s improper closing argument had sullied the verdict. The Appeals Court reversed, finding the prosecutor’s closing argument was proper.
In his opening statement, the defendant’s attorney told the jurors they would hear testimony from the defendant’s business partner, who would testify about the defendant’s whereabouts and activities from 6:00 to 10:00 on the evening of the accident. However, the defense attorney determined midway through the trial that the business partner’s testimony might do more harm than good and decided not to call him as a witness. The prosecutor pointed out in his closing argument that the defense had failed to produce the evidence the defense attorney had promised in his opening statement. After he was convicted, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the prosecutor’s closing argument constituted improper burden shifting. A prosecutor is not allowed to suggest a defendant has a burden to produce evidence favorable to his case, as he is always presumed to be innocent and it is always the Commonwealth’s burden to prove guilt. The trial judge agreed the prosecutor had burden shifted and ordered a new trial. However, the Appeals Court ruled the defense attorney’s promise to produce evidence permitted the prosecutor to respond when the promised evidence was not produced. The Court also pointed out the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming, and there was no risk of a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, the guilty verdict was reinstated.