The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a series of serious convictions against a man who had been accused of robbing a high-stakes poker game in North Andover. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Navarro.
An Essex County superior court jury convicted the defendant of 10 counts of masked armed robbery, 10 counts of home invasion, and 10 counts of kidnapping. In June of 2013, two roommates hosted a high-stakes poker game at their North Andover apartment. At least 8 or 10 friends usually showed up for the regular game and wagered at least $100. On the evening of the robbery, a player known as “Shorty” lost all of his money but stayed in the apartment and sent a series of text messages. Shortly thereafter, two men wearing masks burst into the apartment. One of the men brandished a gun and they ordered the players to empty their pockets and turn over their cell phones. The robbers then tied up the players. “Shorty” initially played along as if he was a victim, but as the crime progressed, he admitted he had set up the robbery. He and the two masked men collected the players’ belongings and fled the apartment. Two of the players were able to free themselves and watched the robbers getting into a car that they were later able to describe to the police.
The next day, the defendant and his girlfriend went to the North Andover police station because the girlfriend heard on the news that her car had been used as a getaway driver in a robbery (the car matched the description given by the players). The police did not arrest the defendant at that time, but they prepared a photo array to show to the players who had been robbed. Two of the players identified the defendant as the man with the gun. Several days later, the police arrested “Shorty,” who immediately agreed to cooperate and identified the defendant as being the robber. At trial, the Commonwealth produced 30-40 text messages sent between the defendant and Shorty on the date of the robbery.
Following his conviction, the defendant appealed and argued the trial judge had committed reversible error by not giving the jury an instruction that provided guidance on how to analyze the identification of the defendant. The instruction ordinarily given by trial judges emphasizes that the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving identification beyond a reasonable doubt and there may be reasons why a good-faith identification is mistaken.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed the defendant was entitled to the instruction, but pointed out that he had not requested the judge present it to the jury. The Court said it was not the responsibility of the judge, on his own, to give the identification instruction when the defendant did not ask for it. However, the Court did rule that the defense attorney’s failure to request the instruction constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, as the need for the instruction was “apparent” in the case. Nevertheless, the Court concluded the failure of the trial judge to give the proper identification instruction probably did not make a difference and did not create a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, while there was error and the defense attorney was ineffective, the guilty verdicts were appropriate.
This case is a great illustration of appellate courts’ efforts in upholding convictions. In so many cases, clear errors are committed at defendants’ trials. However, appellate courts often rule that the mistakes were “harmless errors” that should not result in a reversal. Winning on appeal is really hard, and this case is a good example.