The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld the murder conviction against a man whose former attorney was the prosecutor in the case. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Watkins.
In April of 2003, the defendant and the victim both hung around a private club in New Bedford. The two men had a contentious relationship. One day after engaging in a heated argument, the victim told his girlfriend he wanted to “whoop” the defendant, while the defendant said he was tired of people picking on him. The defendant vowed that things were going to change for him.
The defendant left the club. Shortly thereafter, multiple independent witnesses saw a man matching the defendant’s description yelling across the street at another man and then firing several gunshots. A man named Vernon Rudolph, who was friends with the victim and the defendant, was driving nearby as the shooting took place. He later testified that he recognized the defendant and saw him fire seven to eight shots across the street. When police arrived at the scene, they found the victim bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. The police immediately suspected the defendant but were unable to locate him for more than three months. When the defendant was finally tracked down and arrested, he told the officers he would enjoy the car ride back to the police station because it would be the last ride he would take for a long time.
At trial, the defendant’s primary strategy was to attack the credibility of Vernon Rudolph, who received consideration on his own criminal cases in exchange for his cooperation with the Commonwealth. Following his conviction for first-degree murder, the defendant appealed. He made several claims to the Supreme Judicial Court, including that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain his conviction, his attorney was constitutionally ineffective, and the prosecutor had hidden exculpatory evidence. All of the defendant’s arguments were rejected by the Court and his conviction was affirmed.
The most interesting part of the decision, however, was the disclosure of the relationship between the defendant and the man who was prosecuting him for murder. On appeal, the defendant argued he was entitled to a new trial because the prosecutor had a conflict of interest. What was the nature of the conflict? The prosecutor, who was previously a defense attorney, had represented the defendant on three criminal cases in the late 1980s. The trial judge found there was no actual conflict of interest because the cases from the 1980s were not substantially related to the murder case. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the trial judge’s ruling, but said it would have been better if the prosecutor had avoided the risk of a conflict by simply choosing not to prosecute a former client.
Although there may not have been an actual conflict of interest in this case, it’s stunning that an attorney would feel comfortable prosecuting a former client. Equally startling in this case is that the defendant’s attorney had previously represented Vernon Rudolf – the Commonwealth’s star witness – in a criminal case in 1988. It would be fair for the defendant to have serious concerns that the prosecutor had previously represented him and his new attorney had previously represented the Commonwealth’s most important witness. At the very least, it creates a potential appearance of multiple conflicts of interest.