In an opinion released today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld a Saugus mother’s conviction for beating her daughter despite expressing concern about the trial judge’s suggestion that he might jail the young victim for committing perjury. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Beaulieu.
In April of 2013, the defendant and her daughter, who was a middle school honor student, were involved in an argument at their home. According to the daughter, the defendant had a history of physically abusing her. Not wanting to be assaulted, the daughter began walking toward her bedroom. The defendant followed her, shoved her into a wall, and caused her to be jabbed with a pencil. When they arrived at the daughter’s bedroom, the defendant slapped her in the face, giving her a swollen lip. The following day at school, the victim told her friend and school officials about her mother’s attack. A Saugus police detective came to the school and photographed injuries to the daughter’s arm, hip, and lip that were consistent with the daughter’s allegations of abuse. The victim was taken to the hospital. At trial, the victim testified her mother had been physically abusing her for the past three or four years. The defendant testified and denied the allegations. A jury convicted the defendant of assault and battery but acquitted her of the more serious charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Approximately one week after the trial, the defendant’s daughter recanted. She wrote in a letter that she wanted to “make things right” and go home to her mother (she had been living with her aunt since the incident pursuant to an order by the Department of Children and Families).
The defendant’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial based on the daughter’s recantation, which was considered by the trial judge. The judge told the daughter, “these aren’t games we play,” and accused her of preparing to commit perjury by recanting the allegations. The judge told the daughter he was offended by her purported perjury and said if it was possible he was likely going to punish her (specifically mentioning he was considering incarceration). The judge then asked the prosecutor to research the various ways he could punish the daughter. Following the judge’s outburst, the hearing on the defendant’s motion for a new trial occurred (the following week). Despite the judge’s threats, the daughter testified she had lied during her trial testimony. She said she had lied to the police initially about her mother’s alleged abuse and then felt she couldn’t take back the lie. She said the injuries witnessed by the police had actually been caused by a fight with two other students. The judge refused to grant a new trial to the defendant, concluding that the daughter’s trial testimony was truthful. The defendant appealed.
The defendant argued on appeal that her motion for a new trial should have been allowed and specifically criticized the judge’s comments toward her daughter. The Appeals Court said it is appropriate for a judge to warn a recanting witness that perjury is punishable by possible jail time. A judge is entitled to remind a witness of a duty to tell the truth. The Court found that here, “even if more measured language might have been better suited to this particular situation,” the trial judge had not abused his discretion. After all, even after the judge’s comments, the daughter still recanted and the defendant had therefore not been prejudiced. Accordingly, the motion for a new trial had been properly denied.
Despite affirming the defendant’s conviction (and the denial of her motion for a new trial), the Appeals Court justices who considered the case were clearly unimpressed with the trial judge’s comments to the victim. In a concurring opinion, one of the justices pointed out that the case involved “a recantation by a child, one found by a jury to be a victim of domestic violence. Her testimony led to her mother’s conviction and to the child’s own inability to have any contact with her mother.” While it made sense for the judge to be skeptical of the recantation, “more measured language would have been best.”