The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed the conviction of a man who was convicted, in part, based on a letter he sent to his girlfriend while in jail awaiting trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Jessup.
The defendant and the victim were part of a group of people who were celebrating a woman’s birthday at a Springfield club in May of 2010. After they left the club, the victim went into his car and the defendant and another man allegedly demanded his money and then shot him to death. At least one of the witnesses to the shooting identified the defendant from a police photo bank. Following an altercation with the victim’s friends a couple of days after the shooting, the defendant and his girlfriend fled. They were picked up by law enforcement personnel in Virginia the following day (three days after the murder) and held without bail pending their return to Massachusetts. The defendant and his girlfriend were being held in the same detention facility, and the defendant sent a letter to his girlfriend. In the letter, the defendant discussed his dismay at being broke and unable to pay his bills. He also said he did “some dumb shit” because the girlfriend belittled him for having no money. The defendant also said he was not going to serve life in prison because he didn’t believe the bullet had killed the victim (after the shooting, the victim’s car rolled into a fire hydrant, but at trial the medical examiner testified that the victim’s death was caused by the gunshot wound). The defendant then planted an alibi with the girlfriend and asked her to stay with him. When the defendant mailed the letter to his girlfriend, he put the same return address as the mailing address on the envelope, which caught the attention of the jail guards. There was a policy that prohibited inmates sending mail to one another unless such communication was pre-approved. The guards took the letter and opened it.
The defendant moved to suppress the letter he wrote to the girlfriend prior to his trial. A superior court judge denied the motion and the letter was introduced to the jury, which ultimately convicted the defendant of first-degree murder. The defendant appealed the trial judge’s denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that the seizure of his letter violated his First Amendment right of free speech. The United States Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue on multiple occasions. Recognizing that prisoners retain their First Amendment rights while serving sentences, the Court said a regulation pertaining to mail is valid only if it reasonably relates to a legitimate penological interest. Factors to be considered are whether the regulation is legitimate and neutral; whether there are alternative means for exercising the challenged right; what impact the accommodation will have on guards and inmates; and whether there is a less-stringent alternative that will protect the facility’s legitimate interests. In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court weighed the factors and concluded that the regulations that led to the seizure of the defendant’s mail passed constitutional muster and the letter was properly admitted at trial.
As this blog has previously discussed, the government routinely listens to and records telephone calls between inmates and their family members and friends. These calls often reveal damaging information that is then used against defendants at their trials. Just like with phone calls, it is extremely dangerous for inmates to send letters to anyone that discuss any part of their cases. It is likely that the letters will end up in the hands of the government and, like this case, may be the deciding factor in the government earning a conviction.