The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who is accused of gunning down a rival gang member in Roxbury. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Wardsworth.
On September 20, 2007, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts approached the Academy Homes housing complex in Roxbury and opened fire on four people sitting on a porch. One man was shot in the head and died the following day. The shooters fled and the police arrived on the scene minutes later. Knowing there were hostilities between members of the Academy Homes gang and members of the Walnut Park gang (also located in Roxbury), the responding officers began canvassing the area of Walnut Park. Cops saw the defendant and Shawn Daughtry exiting a building wearing clothes that were similar to the clothes worn by the shooters. The cops separated the men and interrogated them. They gave inconsistent statements about their whereabouts earlier in the day and were taken to the police station. Meanwhile, the cops learned the shooting had been captured on a security camera located at the Academy Homes housing complex. The grainy video depicted two men in sweatshirts committing the shooting. The defendant and Daughtry had their hands and clothes tested for gunshot residue. Daughtry’s left hand tested positive while the defendant tested negative. The Commonwealth indicted the men for multiple crimes, including first-degree murder, armed assault with intent to murder, and gun offenses. The Commonwealth’s theory of the case was the defendant and Daughtry were gang members who had been shot at in the months leading up to the murder, and they committed this murder in retaliation. The defendant’s gun jammed, according to the Commonwealth, which is why he did not have gunshot residue on his clothes or hand. Daughtry and the defendant were tried separately. Daughtry was found not guilty of all charges while the defendant was convicted of everything and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The defendant appealed and the SJC reversed.
The Court found three major mistakes made by the trial judge that called for a reversal of the defendant’s convictions. First, the judge allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of Daughtry’s statements to the police at the defendant’s trial. Because Daughtry did not testify, these statements constituted hearsay. However, the trial judge concluded the statements were admissible under the joint venture exception to the hearsay rule. This exception allows for the introduction of a non-testifying joint venturer’s statement if the statement is made during the pendency of the joint venture and in furtherance of its goal. However, if the statement was made after the conclusion of the joint venture, it is not admissible. Daughtry’s statements were made at least one hour after the shooting, and some of the statements suggested the defendant was involved in the crime while he (Daughtry) was innocent. Because the two men were no longer working together in furtherance of a joint venture, Daughtry’s statements against the defendant should not have been admitted at the defendant’s trial. This error alone demanded the defendant receive a new trial.
The SJC identified two other errors that impaired the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial. First, the trial judge allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of gang tensions in Roxbury at the time of the shooting. While some of the gang expert’s testimony was proper, the judge allowed him to offer an opinion that the defendant was a gang member, despite no personal knowledge of the truth of such an assertion. The gang expert was also permitted to testify about gang activity that extended beyond the conduct in this case. Both of these errors prejudiced the defendant. Finally, the judge allowed four Boston cops to offer their opinions that the defendant was one of the two shooters depicted in the surveillance video. The problem with this testimony is that where the jurors can view the surveillance video themselves, it is generally improper to allow witnesses to identify individuals in the video (because the jurors can look at the video and form their own conclusions).
As a result of all these errors, the defendant will be returned to Suffolk Superior Court to face a new trial.