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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reduces Murder Conviction for Mentally Disabled Defendant

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today decided to reduce a man’s conviction for first-degree murder to second-degree murder, citing the defendant’s longstanding cognitive problems resulting from brain injuries suffered during his childhood.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dowds

In May of 2006, the 20-year-old victim was working at his retail job on Route 114 in Danvers.  He parked his SUV outside the store and left the keys inside before reporting to his job.  At some point during his shift, the victim’s boss told him his SUV was being driven away.  The victim ran outside and caught up to the SUV as it was merging onto 114.  The defendant was driving the vehicle.  The victim screamed for the defendant to stop and banged on the front passenger’s side window.  Instead, the defendant drove onto 114 as the victim clung onto the exterior of the vehicle.  Witnesses saw the SUV swerving through traffic until it ultimately slammed into a telephone pole approximately half a mile from the victim’s store.  The  collision caused the SUV to fly into the air and the victim to strike the telephone pole.  The victim died at the accident scene and the defendant staggered away before being apprehended by police within 20 minutes.  An accident reconstruction expert concluded the defendant was driving faster than 49 miles per hour shortly before it collided with the telephone pole.  The defendant gave a statement to the police admitting he had stolen the SUV after seeing the keys left in the vehicle.  The defendant was planning to drive home to Lawrence.  He admitted that he was driving erratically and weaving back and forth in an effort to “shake” the victim from the exterior of the SUV.  An Essex Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder on two theories – extreme atrocity or cruelty, and felony-murder (felony murder is completed when a death results during the defendant’s commission of a felony (unarmed robbery in this case) and the defendant acted with conscious disregard of human life).  On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded the evidence was sufficient to support a first-degree murder conviction, but as a result of the defendant’s cognitive deficits the Court reduced the conviction to second-degree murder.

The defendant argued on appeal that his trial attorney had provided him with ineffective assistance of counsel because he had not investigated his prior brain injuries and how they might have impacted the defendant’s ability to conform his behavior to the law.  If the defense attorney had conducted a competent investigation, he would have discovered the defendant was hit by a car when he was four years old, causing brain damage and resulting in the defendant engaging in self-harmful and impulsive behaviors.  Nine years later, the defendant was again hit by a car which caused him to suffer additional brain damage and a seizure disorder.  Testing established the defendant was mentally handicapped as a result of the accidents.  The defendant argued this information, if known to his trial attorney, would have constituted a defense.

The SJC concluded evidence of the defendant’s cognitive limitations would not have made a difference to the jury.  The defendant acknowledged: he stole the victim’s SUV because it contained the keys; he was aware the victim was clinging to the vehicle; and he intentionally swerved to shake the victim loose.  On these facts, the defendant had the mental capacity to understand his actions were wrong.  However, according to the Court, a conviction of murder in the second degree would be more “consonant with justice” in this case.  Therefore, while the defendant is still a convicted murderer, he will be eligible for parole at some point in the future.

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