An Everett man who gunned down his ex-wife in the street in front of their home had his murder conviction upheld yesterday by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Philbrook.
The defendant and his ex-wife got divorced in the 1970s, but they had gotten back together and had been living together for decades at the time of the murder. The relationship was stormy, and the defendant and the victim fought constantly. During the week before the murder, the defendant confided in his granddaughter that he believed the victim had stolen $50,000 from him to buy lottery tickets. He threatened to kill the victim if he was able to prove the theft.
The defendant was employed as a janitor at a local gym. Two days before killing his ex-wife, the defendant attacked one of the gym’s members with a baseball bat. When the police responded, the defendant accused the gym patron of stealing $700 from him. The defendant was arrested and charged with assault and battery (he also was fired from his job). On the evening of the murder, the defendant’s ex-wife went outside and called her adult son to complain about the defendant. The ex-wife said she was sick of the defendant’s behavior and she was going to call the police. The defendant picked up another extension and, upon hearing the victim threaten to call the police, began to scream and swear. Minutes later, the defendant came outside and calmly shot the victim as she tried to run away from him. Neighbors watched as the defendant shot the victim five times, killing her. The defendant then fled from the scene and was arrested shortly thereafter as he was in the process of buying beer, cigarettes, and candy from a nearby packy.
The defendant argued at trial he was not criminally responsible (commonly known as the insanity defense). As is almost always the case with insanity defenses, the jury didn’t buy it and convicted the defendant of first-degree murder. He appealed, arguing primarily that the trial judge had committed legal error by permitting the Commonwealth to introduce evidence at the murder trial regarding his workplace assault with the baseball bat that happened two days before the killing. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
Before the trial started, the prosecutor filed a motion in limine seeking permission to share the details of the work assault with the jury. The rules of evidence prohibit the admission of evidence to establish an individual has a propensity to act in a certain way. For example, the prosecutor could not have introduced the work assault to establish the defendant is a violent guy and, therefore, it’s likely that he intentionally killed his ex-wife. However, the prosecutor argued the evidence was relevant not as propensity evidence, but rather as a “prior bad act.” The trial judge agreed, ruling the defendant’s violence against both the gym member and his ex-wife were motivated by his worries about money. Accordingly, evidence of the defendant’s assault on the gym member established a pattern of behavior that was consistent with the defendant’s murder of his ex-wife. The SJC agreed with the trial judge’s ruling and pointed out without evidence of the gym assault, the murder could have looked like an “inexplicable act of violence.” Evidence of the gym assault was necessary to put the murder into context.
While it probably made no difference in this case, the litigation of pretrial motions is often as important as the litigation of the case itself. Motions in limine determine whether extremely damaging evidence (such as prior instances of violence) will be admitted at trial. Such evidence often means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal.