Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Murder Conviction Despite Violation of Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the murder conviction against a mentally ill man who viciously stabbed his estranged girlfriend to death.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Waweru

The defendant and the victim had dated periodically and had two children together.  The defendant had a long history of mental illness and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a personality disorder.  He had been hospitalized for treatment of his mental illnesses on multiple occasions and had been prescribed mood stabilizing and antipsychotic medications.  He told the victim’s sister that if he ever killed someone, nothing would happen to him as a result of his bipolar diagnosis.  In October of 2007, the defendant dropped off the victim at her sister’s apartment in Lynn.  Shortly thereafter, the defendant forced his way inside the apartment and hit the victim’s sister in the head with a piece of wood.  The defendant then struck the victim with the wood, knocking the victim unconscious, and pulled a knife from his sock.  The defendant stabbed the victim 24 times in the neck, arm, head, chest, and back, while their one-year-old daughter crawled between them.  After the stabbing, the defendant ran away and threw the knife into a cemetery.  The victim died as a result of her stab wounds.

The police found the defendant the same night at his home and placed him into custody.  The defendant appeared to be intoxicated and acknowledged having taken drugs.  The police took the defendant to a nearby hospital, where he was shackled to a hospital bed and guarded by officers.  More than 12 hours later, the hospital’s attending psychiatrist conducted a psychological evaluation of the defendant.  The defendant and the psychiatrist spoke while the police officers remained in the room.  In response to the psychiatrist’s questions, the defendant said he had been thinking about killing the victim because she had been the cause of his problems.  The psychiatrist concluded the defendant was depressed and exhibited elements of mania. The defendant filed a pretrial motion to suppress the statement he made to the psychiatrist, arguing its admission would violate the psychotherapist-patient privilege.  A superior court judge denied the motion and allowed the statement to be admitted at the defendant’s trial.  The defendant did not deny he had stabbed the victim, but argued he was insane at the time of the crime.  A jury convicted him of first-degree murder and the defendant appealed.

The defendant argued his conversation with the psychiatrist had been privileged and should not have been admitted at his trial.  Massachusetts law says a statement made by a patient to a psychotherapist related to the diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s mental or emotional treatment is inadmissible against the patient.  The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the defendant that he satisfied the statutory definition of “patient” and the psychiatrist qualified as a “psychotherapist.”  Because the psychiatrist’s evaluation of the defendant was directly related to diagnosing and treating the defendant’s mental or emotion condition, the defendant’s statements were privileged.  The Commonwealth argued the defendant waived the privilege because he made the statements in the presence of the police officers who were guarding him.  The SJC disagreed, ruling the cops should not have been required to leave the defendant’s hospital room because he posed a grave danger to the public and hospital personnel.  Accordingly, because public safety demanded the presence of the cops in the defendant’s hospital room, he did not waive the psychotherapist-patient privilege.

Nevertheless, the Court concluded the erroneous introduction at trial of the defendant’s statements to the psychiatrist did not prejudice him because evidence of his guilt was overwhelming.  The defendant had previously stated he would be shielded from criminal liability for murder because of his mental illness; he appeared to have been acting normally on the day of the murder; and the evidence suggested he had carefully planned the murder.  Furthermore, the defendant was careful not to stab his nearby one-year-old daughter and, after the crime, the defendant fled and disposed of the murder weapon.  The evidence was clear, according to the SJC, that the defendant was not insane when he killed the victim.  Accordingly, the defendant’s murder verdict was upheld and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.