The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a Somerville man’s murder conviction after the defendant shot the victim during an attempted armed robbery. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Martin.
Gordon Brown was a drug dealer who sold marijuana and hashish to the victim and the victim’s brother in 1976. On the evening of September 9, 1976, the victim and his brother went to Brown’s Cambridge apartment to purchase one kilogram of hashish. The brother was carrying a scale (to weigh the drugs) and $1,600 (the agreed-upon price). When they arrived, Brown appeared agitated and said he didn’t have the drugs yet. The victim and his brother left, passing the defendant and the defendant’s girlfriend on the stairs as they departed. The victim and his brother returned later that night and Brown brought them to a bedroom. Brown then left and the defendant immediately entered, pointing a gun at the victim and demanding the money. The victim raised his hands and said, “wait a minute.” The defendant then shot him a single time in the chest from five feet away. The victim’s brother told the defendant the money was in their car, and the defendant left. The victim died within a couple of hours.
After the shooting, the defendant and Brown went downstairs and met the defendant’s girlfriend, who was waiting in her car. The girlfriend had heard the gunshot and the two men appeared panicked when they got into the vehicle. The girlfriend drove the men to their friend’s apartment in Medford, where they stayed for two nights. After learning the victim had died, the girlfriend drove the defendant and Brown to a nearby bridge so they could throw the gun into the water. The girlfriend then drove the men to a bus station in New York City, and they began a voyage to California where they ultimately met up with the defendant’s cousin. The defendant told his cousin he was in California because a drug deal in which he was involved had “gone bad.” He was gone by the following day and remained on the lam for more than 20 years. He was found in Montreal in 1999, living under a different name. According to media reports, the defendant used dozens of aliases and had served five years in a Canadian prison for drug offenses. He was hauled back to Massachusetts and a Middlesex County superior court jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in 2001. He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The defendant’s most compelling appellate argument was that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at his trial. During his opening statement, the defense attorney told the jury they would hear testimony from Brown (who had previously been convicted of murder in this case) and began laying the foundation for why Brown’s testimony should not be believed. The problem is that neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney called Brown to testify. The defense attorney later told a judge that he never intended to call Brown to testify, but he expected the prosecutor to put him on the witness stand. The attorney also conceded it might have been a mistake to promise Brown’s testimony to the jury. The SJC agreed it was manifestly unreasonable for the defense attorney to tell the jury Brown would testify at the trial. However, the Court said the defendant was entitled to a new trial only if his attorney’s error was reasonably likely to have influenced the jury’s verdict. The Court concluded the jury’s decision would have been the same, given the overwhelming evidence that the defendant planned to rob the victim and his brother with a gun, and the attempted robbery led to the defendant shooting and killing the victim.
The defendant will now spend the rest of his life in prison.