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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Lawrence Murder Conviction for Insufficient Evidence

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled a superior court judge should have thrown out a murder case against the defendant, who allegedly drove her boyfriend and others to meet and ultimately kill the victim.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gonzalez.

Toward the end of 2008, the defendant (who was then a 19-year-old woman) sold her Honda Civic to the victim.  The victim did not make full payment and still owed the defendant some money in January of 2009.  During the evening of January 9th, the defendant drove her mother’s Dodge Caravan to a party in Lawrence, with her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s friend as her passengers.   Early the next morning, the defendant happened upon the victim, who was still in debt for his purchase of the defendant’s Civic.  The defendant and the victim began to argue, and the defendant’s boyfriend ultimately confronted the victim with a knife.  The victim punched the defendant’s boyfriend in the mouth and knocked out his tooth.  Later in the day, the victim showed up outside of the defendant’s boyfriend’s house, laughingly offering to sell back the boyfriend’s tooth for $100.  The victim wasn’t laughing later in the day, as he was shot and killed at approximately 6:00 p.m.

The shooting, which occurred within two miles of the defendant’s house, was recorded by several surveillance cameras.  The victim was driving his van in the area of Haverhill Street and parked on the side of the road to let out a passenger.  The victim stayed in his van with another passenger.  About 20 seconds later, a Dodge Caravan arrived at the scene and four people exited.  The four people walked directly to the victim’s van and opened fire, with at least 15 bullets from two handguns shot toward the victim.  The victim was hit twice in the back and died shortly thereafter.  The driver of the Caravan drove away immediately after the four passengers got out.  An investigation led the police to believe the defendant had driven her mother’s Caravan to the murder scene, where her boyfriend and three other men (who were the men seen getting out of the Caravan) participated in the shooting death of the victim.  The police charged four men believed to be involved in the shooting, along with the defendant, with murder (the defendant’s boyfriend was convicted of first-degree murder; one codefendant was convicted of second-degree murder; another codefendant was acquitted, and the Commonwealth dropped charges against the final codefendant).

The defendant was charged under a joint venture theory.  In Massachusetts, a defendant who participates in a crime with the same criminal intent as her codefendants is liable for the conduct of those codefendants.  Therefore, if the defendant here drove the four men to the murder scene with the intent of helping them commit the crime (by providing them with a ride), she is guilty of murder even though she may not have handled the murder weapon.  The jury concluded the defendant was a joint venturer and convicted her of first-degree murder.  On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the trial judge should have allowed the defendant’s motion to dismiss the murder charge after the Commonwealth rested its case.  It is the responsibility of the trial judge in every criminal case to determine, after the Commonwealth has presented its case, whether any rational fact finder could conclude the case had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  In other words, if the Commonwealth’s case is so weak that no rational jury could return a conviction, the judge is required to enter a finding of not guilty, and the jury is not allowed to even consider the case.

The SJC acknowledged the defendant had motive to kill the victim, as he owed her money and he had injured her boyfriend.  The defendant frequently drove her mother’s Caravan, which is the same type of vehicle the shooters exited before killing the victim.  Further, there were phone calls exchanged between the defendant’s cellphone and other men allegedly involved in the shooting shortly before the murder was committed.  However, according to the Court, a rational jury could not have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant was the driver of the Caravan.  The Commonwealth was not able to establish at trial that the Caravan on the surveillance videos was the defendant’s mother’s vehicle.  The Commonwealth also had not established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was driving the vehicle involved in the murder.  Finally, the Commonwealth could not prove it was the defendant (and not her boyfriend, for example) who had called the other men allegedly involved in the murder.  The Court said the jury’s verdict required the piling of “inference upon inference,” which is not sufficient to support a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

As a result of the SJC’s decision, a verdict of not guilty will enter and the defendant will be released from prison (where she had been serving a life sentence).  The Commonwealth cannot retry the defendant in this situation, as a retrial would violate the principle of double jeopardy.

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