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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Boston Murder Conviction Despite Incredibly Flimsy Evidence

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a man who was found guilty of a decades-old killing in Boston.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Scott.

In December of 1984, the 18-year-old victim’s body was discovered in a vacant lot in Boston.  Her autopsy revealed that she was the victim of blunt impact injuries to her head that resulted in a fractured skull, facial lacerations, and broken teeth.  She had also been strangled with a sock.  Vaginal and anal swabs of the victim, along with a stain on the victim’s skirt, contained sperm cells.  The victim’s underwear was found 5-6 feet away and did not contain any sperm.  The murder went unsolved in 1984.  In 2006, the victim’s family contacted the Boston Police Department and asked officers to take another look at the case.  The officers were able to perform DNA analysis on the sperm cells that was not available in 1984.  The results were compared with a database that contains the DNA profiles of individuals who have been convicted of crimes and the sperm in the victim’s body and on her skirt were matched to the defendant.

The defendant had been living in Boston at the time of the victim’s murder.  He had moved to Atlanta by the time he was connected to the crime by DNA evidence.  Boston detectives arrested the defendant in Atlanta toward the end of 2008 and brought him back to Massachusetts for his trial.  The defendant said to one of the detectives, “I have to face the music now.”  The defendant’s defense at trial was that he had engaged in consensual sex with the victim but had not been involved in her murder.

After his conviction, the defendant made several arguments in support of the Supreme Judicial Court overturning the jury’s verdict, including the fact that there was no compelling evidence that proved the defendant killed the victim.  In addition to the DNA evidence discussed above, the Commonwealth called a police criminologist to testify that the defendant’s DNA had likely been deposited into the victim around the time of her death.  His opinion was based on the fact that there were no sperm cells located in the victim’s underwear (suggesting that she had not worn the underwear after having sex) and that the stains on the victim’s skirt suggested that she was lying horizontally when the sperm leaked from her body onto the skirt.

The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that criminal convictions can be based entirely on circumstantial evidence.  An appellate court considers whether, in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, any rational fact finder would have found the essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt.  An appeals court is not responsible for reviewing the evidence and substituting its judgment for that of the jury.  The SJC ruled that the DNA evidence could have convinced the jurors that the defendant had had sex with the victim around the time of her death and at the location of her murder.  The victim’s sister and neighbor testified that they had never heard of the defendant, and they also testified that the victim had never been with an older man (the defendant was significantly older than the victim) and she had never been with a man who did not speak Spanish (the defendant apparently did not speak Spanish).  The Court also pointed out that the defendant acknowledged that he had “to face the music now” when he was arrested.  All of these factors compelled the Supreme Judicial Court to conclude that the evidence was sufficient for the defendant’s conviction.

This case illustrates two important lessons.  First, it is almost never a good idea for someone being arrested to say anything at all to the police.  In a weak case such as this, the defendant’s statement about facing the music might have been the tipping point that allowed the SJC to affirm his conviction.  A person who is under arrest should not say anything to the police until he or she has had a chance to consult with a criminal defense attorney.  Second, the sophisticated DNA databases that now exist pose incredible dangers to individuals who have committed unsolved crimes.  Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 22E, section 3 requires any person who is convicted of a felony to submit a sample of his or her DNA for inclusion in a database that is compared against DNA from unsolved crime scenes.  As this case proves, crimes long forgotten can still be solved through the science of DNA.

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