The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a defendant who shot and killed a man in Lowell in 2010. The defendant was looking for his sister’s ex-boyfriend, who had allegedly kidnapped his sister the previous day. While searching for his sister’s ex-boyfriend, the defendant came upon the victim and shot him twice. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Ortiz.
The defendant’s sister had dated a man named Gilberto Cartagena and they had a two-year-old son together. On May 29, 2010, Cartagena allegedly kidnapped the sister and their son and drove them to the Lowell home of his friend. Shortly thereafter, Cartagena drove the sister and their son to Lawrence, where they were able to escape. At some point during the ordeal, the defendant’s sister inadvertently called the defendant’s phone number and the defendant’s voicemail recorded the sister screaming and crying for a few minutes.
After her escape, the defendant’s sister told him what had happened. The following day, the defendant armed himself with a gun and searched for Cartagena. The defendant went to the Lowell home where his sister had been briefly detained, with the gun in his waistband, and knocked on the door. A man who was apparently not involved in the defendant’s sister’s kidnapping answered the door and the defendant shot him. The defendant was also shot (in the leg), and it was the government’s theory at trial that the defendant accidentally shot himself. The defendant argued that the victim had fired a gun at him.
A jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and the defendant appealed. The appeal was unique in that the defendant conceded that the evidence was sufficient to support the guilty verdict and he did not allege that any errors occurred at his trial. Instead, the defendant argued that the Supreme Judicial Court should exercise its power pursuant to a statute (Massachusetts General Laws chapter 278, section 33E) that allows for a new trial or the reduction of a verdict in the interest of justice. In this case, the Court declined to order a new trial or reduce the conviction to a lesser degree of murder or manslaughter. The Court noted that the statute allowing for a new trial or reduction of the verdict must be utilized “with restraint” and only if the verdict constituted a miscarriage of justice. Here, the jury was given a full opportunity to consider the defendant’s self-defense argument and the evidence presented at trial was adequate to conclude that the defendant had acted in a premeditated fashion.
Defendants who are convicted of murder almost always ask the Supreme Judicial Court for relief pursuant to section 33E, but the Court rarely provides such relief. However, uncharacteristically, the Court has exercised its section 33E power three times this year. In Commonwealth v. Howard, 469 Mass. 721 (2014), the SJC ruled there were errors committed at the defendant’s trial, including the introduction of parts of his statement to the police, and gave the Commonwealth the option of either retrying the defendant or reducing the conviction from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. In Commonwealth v. Figueroa, 468 Mass. 204 (2014), the SJC held that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury and again gave the Commonwealth the choice between retrying the case or reducing the verdict from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. Finally, in Commonwealth v. Berry, 466 Mass. 763 (2014), the SJC reduced a first-degree murder conviction to second-degree murder upon concluding that the killing was “intertwined” with the defendant’s schizoaffective disorder and a tumor in her brain.