The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today determined that a defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder should be reduced to second-degree murder, which will potentially allow the defendant to be released on parole in the future. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Salazar.
One January night in 2005, the blood-soaked defendant appeared at a Dorchester fire department. Firefighters examined the defendant for the source of the blood and found only a small cut on his right hand. Police officers later entered the defendant’s apartment and found his roommate, who was lying dead in a pool of blood. The victim has been stabbed in the neck, which caused him to bleed to death, and sustained 11 additional injuries. The cops were able to follow a trail of blood that led from the victim’s apartment, through his backyard, and eventually to the fire station where the defendant had sought help. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder. At his trial, he testified he had a very close relationship with the victim and had not killed him. According to the defendant, he and the victim had spent the day of the victim’s murder drinking beer and cooking in their apartment. Late in the afternoon, the defendant fell asleep on the couch and was woken up by a loud argument. The defendant testified that he saw two strangers in the apartment who attacked the victim with a knife. The defendant tried to help the victim, but was beaten by the strangers before fleeing to the fire station. The jury didn’t buy the defendant’s story and found him guilty of first-degree murder. The defendant appealed.
On appeal, the defendant argued first that there was insufficient evidence for him to be found guilty of first-degree murder, and second that his trial attorney had not effectively represented him. The Commonwealth was required to prove the defendant killed the victim with deliberate premeditation (after a period of reflection). The reflection period does not need to be particularly long – a few seconds will suffice. In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded the evidence was sufficient to establish the defendant killed the victim after a period of reflection. The victim was killed with a kitchen knife but his body was found between a hallway and a bedroom. The jurors could have reasonably concluded that the defendant retrieved the knife from the kitchen before pursuing the victim through the apartment and killing him near the bedroom. Further, the multiple stab wounds suggested the defendant had committed the murder with deliberate premeditation.
The defendant’s second appellate argument involved his trial lawyer’s failure to introduce medical records establishing he was very drunk on the night of the murder. This evidence was important because the defendant’s voluntary intoxication could have eliminated the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction. The trial lawyer admitted her failure to introduce the medical records was an oversight, and the SJC found the oversight was error. However, the Court concluded the error did not create a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice, particularly since the primary defense was that the defendant didn’t commit the murder at all.
While finding the evidence supported the defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder, the SJC nevertheless decided to reduce the conviction to second-degree murder. The Court said the evidence of premeditation, although sufficient, was far from compelling. Further, the voluntary intoxication defense was not fully presented by defendant’s trial lawyer, and the prosecutor made an improper comment related to the voluntary intoxication defense in his closing argument. For all these reasons, the Court ruled a second-degree murder conviction was more “consonant with justice” and reduced the conviction, which will allow the defendant to potentially be released on parole at some point in the future.