The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week upheld the murder conviction of a Springfield man, ruling his attorney’s failure to interview an alibi witness prior to the trial was an error, but it probably didn’t make a difference. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gonzalez.
In 2008, a drug dealer named Alexander Gautier was shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun. He died from his injuries. The victim had controlled the street-level drug trade in and around several apartment buildings in Springfield. At some point before his death, the victim learned a warrant had issued for his arrest and he fled to Puerto Rico. The victim left his friend, Sammy Ramos, in charge of the neighborhood drug business. New dealers began selling drugs in the area previously controlled by the victim. Some of these dealers sold with the blessing of Sammy and others did not.
The victim returned to Springfield in October of 2008 and was determined to regain control of the drug trade in his neighborhood. On the day he died, the victim was meeting with Sammy at the car dealership Sammy operated. The victim said he wanted to meet with the dealers who had been selling drugs in the neighborhood without Sammy’s permission. While at Sammy’s dealership, the victim ran into the defendant. The defendant was a heroin junkie and made ends meet by stealing, begging, and sometimes working for Sammy at the dealership. The victim told the defendant to either stop stealing from the neighbors or leave the neighborhood. Later in the afternoon, the victim was meeting with Sammy and the neighborhood’s drug dealers behind an apartment building. Sammy saw the defendant approach the group with a handkerchief pulled over his face. The defendant pulled out a gun and shot the victim before fleeing the scene. The murder was also witnessed by an independent third party. During the subsequent investigation, the police found the murder weapon in a nearby incinerator. The state crime lab determined the defendant’s DNA was present on the gun.
The defense at trial was that the defendant had been wrongly identified. The defendant testified that at the time of the murder, he had been helping his girlfriend move her belongings into a storage facility in Connecticut. As he and his girlfriend were driving back to Massachusetts, the defendant received word that the victim had been shot and he was a suspect. The defendant continued on to Springfield, where he went to his sister’s apartment. He testified he arrived at the apartment around 6:30 p.m., which was about an hour and a half after the murder. The defense also called the defendant’s sister’s roommate to testify. She offered an alibi for the defendant, but her testimony was that he arrived at her apartment at 3:30 p.m. on the date of the shooting and stayed for most of the rest of the day. The sister’s roommate’s testimony directly conflicted with the defendant’s testimony. Following his conviction for first-degree murder, the defendant appealed.
His primary argument on appeal was that his attorney had put his sister’s roommate on the witness stand without first interviewing her. The roommate filed an affidavit asserting that she was not interviewed by the defense attorney prior to trial. The Supreme Judicial Court said it was error for the attorney to call the roommate to the witness stand without first interviewing her. However, the Court concluded that the inconsistent evidence provided by the defendant and the roommate was unlikely to have influenced the jury’s verdict. The Court pointed out that the defendant’s own testimony was inconsistent with the trial evidence establishing him as the shooter. The defendant did not call any witnesses from the Connecticut storage facility to testify he was present, and his girlfriend also did not testify. The defendant testified that he may have touched the murder weapon when he was washing a car at Sammy’s dealership and found a shotgun in the trunk. The SJC concluded the defendant’s testimony on this point “strained credulity.” Given the strength of the Commonwealth’s case, it is unreasonable to think the jury would have acquitted the defendant if the sister’s roommate had not testified.
It’s hard to imagine a defense attorney would not have interviewed such a crucial witness prior to calling her to testify, particularly in a murder trial. There may be a backstory to this case that was not shared with the SJC. In any event, this case serves as an important reminder that inadequate trial preparation can sink a case.