The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected a convicted murderer’s appeal yesterday, concluding that while certain evidence used against him at his trial was improperly admitted, it did not affect the outcome of the case. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Valentin.
The defendant had dated a woman named Nettie Becht for about four years. They lived in the same New Bedford housing complex. At some point, the defendant came to believe Nettie had cheated on him and was “using” him. On August 13, 2009, Nettie was in the hospital and the defendant attempted to visit her. By that point, Nettie had broken up with the defendant and told him she did not want to see him. The following day, after Nettie had been released from the hospital, she met with the defendant and told him she was involved in a new romantic relationship and was “done” with the defendant. The defendant told her not to flaunt her new relationship and went back to his apartment. That night, as he was sitting in the dark in his kitchen, the defendant saw Nettie and her date walking toward her apartment. The defendant went outside with a nine millimeter semiautomatic pistol and approached the couple. He fired a total of 10 shots, striking Nettie and her date in their respective torsos. They were both transported to the hospital where they were pronounced dead.
Shortly after the shootings, the defendant had a cell phone conversation with his son and confessed to the murders. A police officer who had arrived at the crime scene saw the defendant walking away while talking on his cell phone. The officer followed the defendant and ordered him to stop. The defendant immediately admitted he was the shooter. The defendant was arrested and taken to the police station, where he made a series of admissions. He told the police he drank half a bottle of whiskey during the hours before the shootings. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. His defense at trial was his level of alcohol intoxication eliminated the intent required for first-degree murder and he was culpable of a lesser crime. After the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, he appealed.
The primary appellate issue was the propriety of the admission into evidence that the defendant owned weapons other than the murder weapon. The Commonwealth introduced testimony regarding the defendant’s ownership of a shotgun, a rifle, several handguns, ammunition, an NRA certificate, gun magazines, and a knife. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the introduction of such evidence was error. The Court has previously expressed concern that introduction of weapons not associated with the crime can potentially cause the jury to think the defendant is of bad character. In this case, the weapons unquestionably were not used in the murders. They were not relevant to any issue that the jury needed to decide, and their introduction to the jury was prejudicial to the defendant’s case. However, although the Court ruled evidence of the defendant’s ownership and possession of multiple weapons should not have been admitted, it also held that the error did not create substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. The other evidence that was presented to the jury was compelling. The Court said evidence that the defendant possessed additional weapons would have been insignificant to the jury. Therefore, the error in this case was harmless and the verdicts will stand.
Winning cases on appeal is hard. As this case illustrates, even clear error is often not enough to reverse a conviction.