The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a defendant who strangled to death a man who had allegedly sexually assaulted him. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cruzado.
In late-November of 2010, the defendant visited the victim’s apartment in Chelsea and drank with the victim and the victim’s boyfriend. At some point, the defendant left and the victim had an argument with his boyfriend. Following the argument, the victim’s boyfriend left the victim’s apartment and did not return. The victim’s body was discovered two days later and the medical examiner determined he had died as a result of blunt force trauma to his head and strangulation. During the ensuing week and a half, the victim’s boyfriend ran into the defendant twice, and the defendant made incriminating statements suggesting he (the defendant) had killed the victim. The police interviewed the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, who said the defendant had told her he visited a black man’s apartment in Chelsea and had fallen asleep. When he woke up, the man was touching his testicles. The defendant angrily said he was not gay (and used an offensive slur), put the man into a head lock, and left after the man fell to the floor. The defendant was indicted and charged with first-degree murder. Following his conviction, and the imposition of a life sentence, the defendant appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed his conviction.
The defendant argued that his videotaped statement to the police should not have been introduced to the jury. During the interview, the defendant denied knowing the victim. When the interrogating officers showed him a photograph of the victim, the defendant continued to deny he knew the victim and repeatedly described him by using the n-word. The defendant sought to preclude the jury from hearing his statement and argued he would be unduly prejudiced if the jurors heard him using a racial slur. While acknowledging the Commonwealth may not use evidence to establish a defendant’s bad character or propensity to commit a crime, the Supreme Judicial Court said in this case the defendant’s statement was relevant to establish his animus toward black people. The Commonwealth’s theory of the case – that the defendant lashed out after the victim (a gay, black man) inappropriately touched him – was supported by the defendant’s use of a racial slur. The Court pointed out that the trial judge told all of the potential jurors before the case started that they would hear evidence of the defendant’s use of the slur, and all of the jurors said they would be able to be fair and impartial. Accordingly, it was not error for the judge to allow the jury to hear the defendant’s offensive statement to the police.
The defendant also argued on appeal that the SJC should set aside (or reduce) his conviction because it would have been close to impossible for him to have spent considerable time in the victim’s apartment and not left behind any trace (DNA) evidence. The Court quickly rejected this argument by pointing out a criminal conviction can be supported by circumstantial evidence alone. The lack of forensic evidence does not provide a basis for an appellate court to reverse or reduce a guilty verdict.