The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the first-degree murder conviction against a man who stabbed to death a Worcester businessman during a home invasion in the summer of 2011. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rutherford.
The defendant’s girlfriend had previously had a sexual relationship with the victim, who owned an auto body shop on Franklin Street in Worcester. The defendant’s girlfriend agreed to have sex with the victim in exchange for money and drugs. The defendant and his girlfriend decided to rob the victim at his home in Rutland at a time when the victim’s wife and daughter were scheduled to be on vacation in Maine. The defendant recruited his former roommate to assist with the crime, but the roommate eventually got cold feet and withdrew from the plan. The defendant told relatives and a friend he was planning to rob someone and made arrangement to store the items he was going to steal from the victim. On the day of the crime, the defendant and his girlfriend broke into the victim’s home and stabbed him five times in the neck. They stole numerous items from the home, including guns, television sets, video game equipment, and jewelry. When the victim’s wife returned several days later and discovered her home in shambles, she called the police. Officers arrived and located the victim’s body. He was killed by a combination of the stab wounds to his neck and blunt trauma to his head. The defendant attracted the attention of the police, who confronted him a few days after the victim’s body was found. Inside the defendant’s car was an ammunition canister that contained the victim’s bloody fingerprints. The police also recovered a set of keys from the defendant that opened a storage area containing the victim’s stolen property. Additional incriminating evidence was found that clearly established the defendant’s participation in the crime.
Following his arrest, the defendant did not deny his involvement in the victim’s death. Instead, he argued he was not criminally responsible because his mental state had been damaged by severe depression, drug use and withdrawal, sleep deprivation, and his codefendant’s manipulation. Lack of criminal responsibility is otherwise known as the insanity defense. Juries almost never acquit on an insanity defense, and this case was no exception. After he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the defendant appealed.
The defendant argued primarily on appeal that the prosecutor had personally attacked the character of a defense expert witness in such a way that necessitated a new trial. The witness worked as a psychiatrist and taught at the Harvard Medical School. The prosecutor, in his closing statement, said the witness needed to “become a human being” and suggested the physical evidence in the case was more important than the evidence offered by the expert. The SJC conceded these remarks were “unfortunate and may have been inappropriate” but said they did not create a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was proper and his life sentence will remain in place. In a separate trial, the defendant’s girlfriend was also convicted of first-degree murder and also sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.