The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a man who lied to the police about being present at a murder scene and refused to cooperate with the investigation should not have been convicted of being an accessory after the fact. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rivera.
Early in the morning of October 16, 2011, the defendant was with his friend Hector Soto. They had been partying together and they stopped at a Jamaica Plain convenience store on their way back to the defendant’s home. In the parking lot, they ran into the victim who was with his own group of friends. An argument ensued and Soto and the victim began exchanging punches and wrestling. As the defendant joined the fight, Soto stabbed the victim. The defendant and Soto then fled the scene in a car and laughed about the victim having been stabbed. The victim died as a result of the stabbing. A week later, two Boston detectives interviewed the defendant at his home. The defendant told the detectives that he had spent the evening of the murder in Hyde Park and had driven home alone. The defendant also told the detectives he didn’t know Soto’s full name or nickname. When detectives asked the defendant to provide Soto’s phone number, he refused. A grand jury indicted the defendant, charging him with once count of accessory after the fact to murder and one count of assault and battery. A Suffolk Superior Court jury found Soto guilty of second-degree murder. The jury acquitted the defendant of assault and battery but convicted him of accessory after the fact. The judge sentenced the defendant to serve one year in jail followed by five years of probation. He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.
The Massachusetts accessory statute requires the Commonwealth to prove a defendant harbored, concealed, maintained, or assisted the principal felon or gave aid to the principal felon with the intent that the principal felon would avoid arrest, trial, detention, or punishment. In this case, the Commonwealth argued the defendant assisted Soto by: lying about his whereabouts on the date of the murder; pretending to not know Soto’s full name or nickname; and refusing to turn over Soto’s phone number to the cops. The SJC acknowledged the evidence at trial proved the defendant lied to the cops and refused to cooperate. However, the Court concluded the defendant’s conduct was insufficient to support his conviction for being an accessory after the fact. By refusing to provide Soto’s phone number to the police, the defendant was exercising his constitutional right to remain silent which cannot be punished by the government. While the defendant’s lies to the police were not constitutionally protected, there is no Massachusetts statute that criminalizes lying to the police (unlike federal law, where it is illegal to make a materially false statement to a federal law enforcement officer). The Court held that a defendant’s lie to the police will trigger the accessory statute only when the lie provided a false alibi for the principal or a false narrative of the crime that would give the principal a defense. The defendant’s lies in this case did not exculpate Soto or provide a false narrative of the crime that could have provided Soto with a defense. Accordingly, the evidence was insufficient to support the defendant’s conviction and a finding of not guilty will be entered.