The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the first-degree murder conviction against a defendant who gunned down a man leaving a house party in Springfield in 2007. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ayala.
During the early morning hours of June 10, 2007, the victim and his friend, Robert Perez, were attending a house party on the second floor of a Springfield house. There was a bouncer stationed on the first floor who was searching the partygoers before allowing their entry. After being searched by the bouncer, the victim and Perez walked upstairs to the second floor. Shortly thereafter, Perez returned to the first floor and was chatting with the bouncer when the defendant showed up. The bouncer attempted to search the defendant, but he angrily resisted and pushed his way inside. A different bouncer confronted the defendant on the stairwell leading to the second floor and refused to allow him to enter the party. A loud argument ensued and the defendant was escorted outside. Perez heard the defendant threaten to return to the house and “light the place up.” After briefly leaving, the defendant returned and kicked in the door leading into the first floor of the house. Perez was sufficiently concerned that he went back to the second floor to find the victim. They watched the defendant pace back and forth outside the house before eventually moving out of sight. At that point, Perez, the victim, and a woman walked outside and the victim began walking toward his vehicle, which was parked nearby. Perez suddenly heard between five and seven gunshots and saw the muzzle flash from a gun, which illuminated the shooter’s face. Perez identified the shooter as the defendant. The victim had been shot twice and died from his injuries. The Commonwealth’s case rested largely on the eyewitness identification made by Perez. A Hampden Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the Commonwealth had not presented sufficient evidence to allow for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the shooter. The defendant challenged Perez’ testimony that he was able to identify him because the gun’s muzzle flash illuminated his face. According to the defendant, because an ordinary juror would not be familiar with the appearance of a muzzle flash, the jury must have relied on improper speculation to accept Perez’ testimony that the flash was bright enough to allow for an identification. In rejecting this argument, the SJC pointed out there was independent evidence supporting the jury’s verdict. Most importantly, the trial evidence established the murder occurred near a street light that was in front of the house, and there was exterior lighting on a nearby building. Therefore, even if the muzzle flash testimony was discounted, there was sufficient lighting to have allowed Perez to see and identify the defendant as the shooter. Viewed in conjunction with the other evidence regarding the defendant’s demeanor prior to the shooting and the threat he made to “light the place up,” a rational jury could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had committed the murder.
The defendant will now spend the rest of his life in prison.