The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed the assault and battery conviction of a defendant who was prohibited from impeaching the credibility of the Commonwealth’s witnesses by the trial judge. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Magdalenski.
The defendant was charged in Northampton District Court with assaulting his sister. He denied that he was guilty. The defendant claimed that his sister’s boyfriend, who was an off-duty police officer, attacked him and his sister was accidentally injured during the scuffle. Following the fight, the defendant caused a criminal complaint to be issued against the police officer. He later withdrew the complaint because, according to him, his sister and the officer threatened him. At the defendant’s trial for assaulting his sister, he wanted the jury to hear evidence that a complaint application had been pending against the officer. The trial judge refused to allow such evidence, reasoning that because no criminal charges were pending against the officer at the time of the trial, the evidence was irrelevant. The Appeals Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction and on further appellate review, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed and remanded the case to the district court for a new trial.
The rule in Massachusetts is that criminal defendants are permitted to introduce evidence to establish that the witnesses against them are biased or have motives to lie. If the evidence would permit an inference that the witness is in any way prejudiced, the trial judge may not prohibit its introduction (although the judge has discretion to limit the scope of the inquiry into the witness). In this case, the SJC held that the trial judge committed reversible error by banning all questions regarding the defendant’s complaint application against the officer. The Court agreed with the defendant that his theory of the case would have been supported by evidence that: his sister and the officer knew about the defendant’s complaint application; they coerced him to withdraw the complaint application; and they later lied about the incident to other police officers. If the jury had heard and believed this evidence, it could have concluded that the sister and the officer had a motive to lie about the events at issue.
This was an easy case for the SJC to reverse. Bias, prejudice, and motive to lie are always relevant issue for juries to consider. In the vast majority of cases, defense attorneys will attack the credibility of witnesses under a variety of theories. The basis theme is always the same – the witness against the defendant has some sort of ax to grind and is therefore lying about the defendant’s conduct. This is an effective line of cross-examination when the witness is a former spouse or romantic partner, a former business associate, or simply a former friend.
If you are charged with a crime, it’s important to hire an attorney who is experienced in investigating the background of the witnesses in order to discover any evidence that could be used as impeachment. This case is a perfect example of how such evidence can be used to the defendant’s benefit at trial.