Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction Against Man Who Stabbed Drug Dealer to Death

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a man who stabbed to death a Roxbury drug dealer.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Copeland

Over the course of two days in July of 2008, the defendant and two women were smoking crack cocaine in a Roxbury apartment.  When they ran out of crack and money on the second day, the defendant called someone on a cell phone and made plans to meet.  He left the apartment wearing a white T-shirt.  The same day, a woman called the police to say she saw a man in a white shirt appear to punch the victim in a nearby parking lot.  At the end of the fight, the man in the white shirt walked away while the victim remained on the ground, bleeding.  Shortly after the fight, a police officer saw the defendant walking nearby.  He was sweating, bleeding, and holding his shirt in his hands.  The defendant returned to the apartment and told the two women that “he got someone” and “took care of business.”  Upon learning the police were gathering outside the apartment building, the defendant gave the women marijuana, cocaine, and money (all of which were stained with blood).  The defendant told one of the women she didn’t need to open the door for the cops and said he was going to try to exit through the back door.  However, a police officer gained entry to the apartment and found the defendant, who had blood on his ear that contained the DNA of the victim.  Also discovered in the apartment was a bloody knife (containing the victim’s DNA) wrapped in a white T-shirt.  Meanwhile, the victim, who had been selling drugs earlier in the day, was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead from a stab wound to the heart.  The defendant eventually admitted he had stabbed the victim, but said he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and he had not planned the stabbing.  The defendant also asserted he had not robbed the victim.  A Suffolk County grand jury returned indictments against the defendant charging him with felony murder and armed robbery.  A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted him and he appealed.

Felony murder is defined as a killing that occurs during the commission of another felony – in this case, armed robbery.  The defendant argued on appeal that the Commonwealth had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed an armed robbery against the victim and, therefore, had not proven he was guilty of felony murder.  To prove the defendant had robbed the victim while armed, the Commonwealth was required to establish the defendant intentionally took money or property from the victim (with the intent to keep it), while armed with a dangerous weapon that was used to apply force to the victim or place him in fear.  The Supreme Judicial Court concluded the evidence proved the defendant had intended to steal (and did steal) from the victim and had used a knife to kill him.  The circumstantial evidence was strong that the defendant had stabbed the victim, and he admitted to the women in the apartment that he “got someone.”  Further, the defendant returned to the apartment with cocaine and the victim was a drug dealer.  Finally, the defendant exhibited consciousness of guilt by getting rid of the bloody money and drugs and expressing a desire to escape through the back door.  The evidence therefore supported a conviction for armed robbery, which was the predicate for the felony-murder.

Interestingly, according to the Boston Herald, the defendant had previously beaten a murder charge.  When he was 15 years old, the defendant was found not guilty of murder after he stabbed and killed a Dorchester man.  Following his conviction in this case, the defendant will spend the rest of his life in prison.