The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who gunned down an acquaintance in a car in 2010. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Miguel Roman.
The defendant was one of five men in a car in Holyoke when gunfire erupted. One of the backseat passengers died after being shot three times in the head. All of the other occupants in the vehicle fled. Following an investigation, the surviving four passengers were charged with murdering the decedent. The defendant was also charged with possession of cocaine. The trial testimony established that several of the individuals in the car had been fighting amongst themselves about money owed to each other. The victim had recently threatened to kill one of the other passengers. There was also evidence that at least some of the car’s occupants were using cocaine on the night of the killing.
The defendant made numerous arguments on appeal, including that the evidence against him was insufficient to sustain his conviction. While acknowledging that it was a circumstantial case, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the evidence did support the guilty findings against the defendant. Before trial, two of the other occupants of the car entered into cooperation agreements with the Commonwealth where they agreed to testify against the defendant in exchange for having the murder charges against them dismissed. In cross-examining the cooperating witnesses at trial, the defendant’s attorney pointed out that their agreement with the Commonwealth allowed them to be released from jail (where they had been held for nearly two years) and avoid the possibility of a life sentence that results from a first-degree murder conviction. However, the agreements also allowed the prosecutor to decide whether the witnesses’ stories at trial were truthful, and if the prosecutor believed they lied during the trial, the witnesses would be in breach of the agreements. The defendant’s attorney argued during his closing argument that the witnesses were cooperating with the Commonwealth to save themselves from returning to jail. The witnesses were, according to the defendant’s attorney, puppets of the prosecutor.
Ultimately the jury rejected the defense theory. The defendant complained on appeal that the judge had not adequately instructed the jury that the incentives provided by the government could have influenced the cooperating witnesses’ testimony. The SJC rejected that argument, noting that the trial judge had repeatedly warned the jury that they – not the prosecutor – were responsible for determining whether the cooperating witnesses were telling the truth. Those instructions appropriately warned the jurors that they should not automatically trust the testimony of the cooperating witnesses just because they had entered into agreements with the Commonwealth. Accordingly, the defendant’s convictions were affirmed and he will now spend the rest of his life in prison.
If you are charged with, or being investigated for, committing a crime, it is crucial that you hire an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. This case illustrates the importance of having a defense lawyer explore all of your options very early in the process, as the two cooperating witnesses escaped murder indictments by cooperating with the Commonwealth. While cooperation agreements are not always in suspects’ best interests, this case is an example of how they can sometimes benefit individuals facing very serious charges.