The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a superior court judge’s decision to grant a new trial to a convicted murderer who proved that he suffered a stroke during his trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Brescia.
The defendant and his wife married in 1998 but had problems that led to the wife filing for divorce in 2003. She withdrew the 2003 divorce petition only to refile in 2005. Also in 2005, the wife began having contact with her former boyfriend, who would later become the victim. The defendant found out about the contact and fought with his wife about her involvement with the victim. According to the wife, the defendant said it wouldn’t be good for the victim’s health if he ended up with her.
A few months later, the defendant hired a private investigator to follow his wife and bought records regarding the victim from an Internet company. The defendant also asked a coworker to put him in contact with a man named Scott Foxworth, who was allegedly available for hire as an assassin. The defendant allegedly told the coworker that he wanted the victim “beaten up” but later said that “a beating wasn’t enough.” The defendant and Foxworth had extensive telephone contact and a few months later, the victim was fatally shot in the head. His body was found in a Newton parking garage and his wallet was found containing his credit cards and a significant amount of cash. A car matching the description of Foxworth’s car was seen at the crime scene, and his daughter had seen a gun in the same vehicle. Following a police investigation, the defendant and Foxworth were both charged with first-degree murder, and they were both convicted in separate trials.
The defendant testified at his trial. He said he initially paid Foxworth $1,000 to threaten, and possibly beat, the victim, but he never asked Foxworth to kill him. The defendant said that shortly before the murder, he asked Foxworth to return his money and said he no longer wanted Foxworth to interact with the victim. However, Foxworth murdered the victim on his own and demanded an additional $1,000, which the defendant paid.
The defendant completed his direct examination in less than one day, and the prosecutor began her cross-examination in the afternoon. The next day, the prosecutor completed her cross-examination of the defendant and the case was sent to the jury. As the jury was deliberating, the defendant was taken to the hospital for treatment of a stroke. Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that his stroke had prevented him from enjoying a fair trial.
The judge concluded, based on medical records and expert analysis, that the defendant had suffered a stroke between the first and second days of his testimony. The court reporter noticed during the defendant’s testimony that he was confusing words, pronouns, and names. The judge viewed videotape of the trial and determined that the defendant’s ability to testify was reduced on the second day that he was on the witness stand. Because the jury may have concluded that the defendant was being evasive based on his second day of testimony (when, in actuality, his testimony was impacted by his then-undiagnosed stroke), the judge concluded that justice “may not have been done” and ordered a new trial. The Commonwealth appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the superior court judge that the defendant is entitled to a new trial. The Court pointed out that the jury’s decision on whether to convict would have been heavily influenced by whether it believed the defendant was testifying truthfully. After his stroke, the defendant either asked for a question to be repeated or expressed confusion about its meaning 15 times, which could have led to the jury believing that he was being purposefully evasive. For all of these reasons, the SJC agreed to grant a new trial to the defendant.