Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Medford Assault Conviction, Ruling Eyewitnesses Properly Identified Defendant

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the conviction of a man who struck his female companion with his cane, rebuffing his argument that eyewitnesses were permitted to improperly identify him during his trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Stewart

On the afternoon of March 18, 2015, an eyewitness heard the defendant and the victim arguing on Governors Avenue in Medford.  The eyewitness watched the victim start to walk away when the defendant hit her with his cane.  The victim lost consciousness and fell to the ground.  The eyewitness called 911 and stayed on the scene until the police arrived.  She pointed out the defendant to the responding officer.  A second eyewitness was parking her car on Governors Avenue when she saw the defendant strike the victim with his cane.  She also called 911 and approached the defendant, telling him not to attempt to move the victim.  When the victim regained consciousness, she began walking away with the defendant.  The second eyewitness waited until police officers arrived and identified the defendant as the perpetrator.  At the defendant’s trial in Somerville District Court, both eyewitnesses were permitted to identify him as having assaulted the victim.  A jury convicted him of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and he appealed.

The defendant’s primary appellate argument involved the trial judge’s decision to allow the eyewitnesses to identify him in front of the jury.  The defendant contended the trial judge’s decision violated a rule announced by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2014, which restricted the circumstances under which eyewitnesses can offer in-court identifications to juries.  In that case, the SJC held that eyewitnesses may not ordinarily identify criminal defendants during their trials unless they have previously identified them during an out-of-court identification procedure.  The Court reasoned that such an in-court identification would be unnecessarily suggestive (since the defendant would be sitting next to his attorney at the defense table).  Therefore, an eyewitness must identify the defendant out of court before being permitted to identify him at trial.  In this case, the defendant argued the eyewitnesses had not properly identified him prior to the trial, and accordingly it was error for the trial judge to permit their identification of him before the jury.  However, the Appeals Court agreed with the trial judge that the eyewitnesses had identified him to the police immediately following the assault.  While the eyewitnesses had not identified the defendant in a photo array or by way of a traditional show-up process, they pointed out the defendant to the police and said they saw him hit the victim with a cane.  The Appeals Court concluded the eyewitness identifications of the defendant at the crime scene allowed them to subsequently identify him in court.

The defendant also objected to the trial judge’s designation of a sleeping juror as the alternate (who never served on the deliberating jury).  The Appeals Court ruled the trial judge had acted appropriately in prohibiting the juror from deliberating after making a determination that he had been sleeping (and after hearing the juror attribute his sleepiness to his night job).