The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a man’s first-degree murder conviction for his participation in the killing of a 21-year-old woman. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Parker.
During the fall of 2001, there was an area in Harvard Square known as “the Pit,” where young people, many of whom were homeless, congregated. In October of that year, the defendant and his co-conspirators represented themselves as members of the Crips and attempted to recruit people hanging out in the Pit to become members of their gang. The victim and her boyfriend agreed to join the Crips and became members during an initiation ceremony held in a cemetery on Halloween night. They were then advised of the gang’s rules, which included mandatory participation in missions to rob people of their cash and credit cards. Failure to successfully complete these robberies would result in beatings from fellow gang members. After a couple of days in the gang, some of the new members (including the victim’s boyfriend) learned the defendant and his co-conspirators had lied about being members of the Crips. The victim’s boyfriend renounced his membership in the gang, the defendant told others of a new plan to hold down and stab the victim. The murder happened as described by the defendant – the victim was stabbed to death (by the defendant’s co-conspirator) on a railroad bridge adjacent to the Charles River. Following the murder, the victim’s body was thrown into the river. During a subsequent police interview, the defendant admitted he knew the victim was going to be killed but he was powerless to stop it. He said he did not personally kill the victim because he was high enough in the gang hierarchy that he wasn’t responsible for performing any of the “dirt work.” The defendant also told the cops the witnesses would not make it to the trial. A Suffolk Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder on a joint venture theory and the defendant appealed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument involved the cops’ seizure of his bloodstained clothes without a warrant. Following the victim’s murder, the defendant had been arrested for his alleged participation in an unrelated kidnapping. While the defendant was in police custody awaiting arraignment on the kidnapping charge, the police received a tip that he was also involved in the victim’s killing. Accordingly, a state trooper took the defendant’s clothes into evidence. A district court judge ordered the trooper to return the clothes to the defendant (as they had been seized without a warrant), but the next day the state police obtained a search warrant and again took possession of the defendant’s clothes. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found on his clothes, arguing there had been no constitutional justification for the police to have initially seized his clothes without a warrant. A superior court judge denied the motion and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the denial. The Court concluded there were exigent circumstances that allowed the police to seize the clothes without a warrant, because the police reasonably believed evidence would be lost or destroyed if the clothes were not taken immediately. A significant risk existed that the defendant might try to wash his clothes in a jail sink or trade his clothes with another inmate in an effort to hide evidence. It was not practicable for the police to wait to obtain a warrant, and it was therefore proper for the cops to take the defendant’s clothes without a warrant.
In affirming the defendant’s first-degree murder conviction, the Supreme Judicial Court has guaranteed he will spend the rest of his life in prison.