Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Murder Conviction for Man Who Caused Fatal Car Crash While Fleeing Police

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the second-degree murder conviction of a man who, while fleeing the cops in October of 2012, caused a seven-car crash that killed a woman.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Moore

On the date in question, two undercover Brockton police detectives were investigating illegal drug activity in the city.  When they saw an SUV driven by the defendant roll through a stop sign, they decided to stop him.  The detectives illuminated the emergency lights on their undercover police vehicle and parked in front of the defendant.  They shouted “stop, police” multiple times at the defendant but he quickly drove away, hitting the police vehicle as he attempted to escape.  The defendant weaved in and out of rush hour traffic and sped into the intersection of Quincy and Centre Streets, slamming his SUV into the driver’s side of a Jaguar being driven by the victim.  The defendant’s SUV flew into the air and the accident caused a massive explosion.  At least five other cars were also involved in the collision and the driver of the Jaguar was killed.  The defendant fled on foot but was caught nearby.  His SUV contained an Event Data Retrieval System (commonly known as a black box), which revealed his vehicle was traveling 64 miles per hour one second before the accident.

The defendant testified at trial that immediately before the police tried to stop him, he was on his way to participate in a drug transaction.  He noticed the cops’ undercover vehicle and became concerned someone was trying to block his car in order to rob him.  The defendant testified he panicked and drove away, believing his life was in harm’s way.  While he eventually saw the police lights behind him as he was driving toward the intersection, he testified he didn’t know to react and “froze up.”  He said it was not his intention to evade the police.  The jury convicted the defendant of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison (with the possibility of parole).  He appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed his conviction.

The defendant’s primary argument on appeal was the Commonwealth had failed to prove the elements of second-degree murder, which requires a showing the defendant acted with malice.   Malice is present when a defendant: intends to kill the victim; intends to cause grievous bodily harm to the victim; or commits an intentional act which, in the circumstances known to the defendant, a reasonable person would have recognized would create a plain and strong likelihood of death.  The defendant was prosecuted under the third prong of malice, and he argued a reasonable person would not have understood his conduct created a plain and strong likelihood of death.  Instead, argued the defendant, he should have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which requires only that the defendant’s conduct was wanton and reckless and involved a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another.  The Appeals Court ruled the Commonwealth had proven the defendant acted with malice, thereby justifying the murder conviction.  The Court said evidence of a high-speed chase through busy streets at rush hour resulting in a high-impact collision should have convinced the defendant his conduct created a plain and strong likelihood of death.  Accordingly, the second-degree murder conviction was upheld along with the life sentence.

This case is unusual.  In most cases like this in Massachusetts, the defendant is charged with felony motor vehicle homicide or involuntary manslaughter.