The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a murder conviction against a defendant whose attorney was incompetent. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Alcide.
In July of 2006, two groups of friends went to a pub in Lowell. As the groups of people left the bar, they began to argue. The argument led to one man punching another in the face, which caused the crowd to disperse. The victim ran away from the pub, but later ran back toward it. Someone fired two shots from a gun and one of the bullets struck the victim in the back of the head and killed him.
The motive for the shooting was unclear at the trial. The defendant argued that he was not the shooter. The gun was never recovered and there was no forensic evidence that tied the defendant to the murder. However, four of the defendant’s friends testified that he admitted to shooting the gun and one of the friends testified that the defendant had raised his hand immediately before a gunshot sounded and the victim fell down. Further, one of the defendant’s friends testified that he had been given a gun earlier in the evening. There were two employees at the bar who gave very shaky identifications of the defendant. The defendant argued at trial that someone else had been the shooter and his friends had falsely accused him to protect one of their other friends. The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder.
Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that his trial attorney had been constitutionally ineffective. The attorney filed an affidavit stating that: (1) he was unaware of much of the prosecutor’s discovery file; (2) he did not review the physical evidence at the police department; (3) he rarely hired experts or investigators to assist in the defense; (4) he didn’t try to interview any of the witnesses to the murder; and (5) he did not typically file motions to suppress evidence. The trial judge declined to award a new trial to the defendant, concluding essentially that having a competent attorney would not have made a difference.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed. The Court held first that the defense attorney’s inadequate preparation had been unacceptable. He failed to present evidence that someone other than the defendant had shot the victim. Further, his failure to file a motion to suppress the witnesses’ identification of the defendant may have made a difference in the trial, given how weak the identifications were. The Court concluded that the defense attorney’s horrendous job created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, the defendant’s murder conviction was reversed and the case was remanded to the superior court for a new trial.
This case illustrates the importance of criminal defendants hiring competent, experienced attorneys to represent them. The defense attorney’s incompetence in this case is particularly egregious given that a first-degree murder conviction results in a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Interestingly, the defense attorney also ended up going to prison. This Lowell Sun article outlines the long list of bad behavior that resulted in the attorney’s disbarment and imprisonment.