The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today rejected a Somerville man’s claim that the prosecution committed misconduct requiring the reversal of his murder conviction. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Imbert.
During the early morning hours of April 3, 2004, the defendant and the victim were separately partying at a Revere nightclub. The defendant and several of his friends came together, with one of the friends driving the defendant’s car. While in the club, the victim stepped on the defendant’s friend’s foot and the defendant responded by punching the victim in the face. The nightclub manager shut down the club and the customers were asked to leave. In the parking lot, a witness saw somebody hand a gun to a man matching the defendant’s description. Soon thereafter, the victim was shot and killed (and another man was shot in the back, but survived). A witness who knew the defendant saw him shoot the victim, and a second witness who was friends with the defendant saw him holding a revolver in his hand. After the shots were fired, the defendant fled on foot and left his car in the parking lot. The defendant’s girlfriend picked him up and he said, “he had to do what he had to do.” The defendant’s cell phone plan was canceled the day after the crime. The defendant was convicted by a superior court jury of first-degree murder, armed assault with intent to murder, and carrying a gun without a license.
Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial. A superior court judge refused to grant him a new trial and he appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. The most interesting appellate issue was whether the Commonwealth had withheld exculpatory evidence from the defendant before his trial. In criminal cases, the prosecutor is required to provide the defendant with any exculpatory (helpful to the defendant) evidence in the Commonwealth’s possession. In this case, following the defendant’s conviction, the prosecutor disclosed police notes indicating that an eyewitness to the shooting had not been able to identify the defendant in a photo array, despite testifying before the grand jury that she had seen the shooting. The Supreme Judicial Court said the prosecutor’s failure to provide this evidence to the defendant before his trial was an error. In cases where exculpatory evidence was not shared by the prosecutor, the defendant bears the burden to establish he was prejudiced by the nondisclosure. Appellate courts consider whether it is reasonable to believe the nondisclosed evidence would have made a difference to the jury. The Court concluded the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the police notes in this case would not have made a difference. The eyewitness provided a general description of the shooter but did not identify the defendant as the shooter either before the trial or in front of the jury. The fact that she had not been able to identify the defendant during a photo array, therefore, was cumulative of the information the jury already had.
With the Supreme Judicial Court’s rejection of his appeal, the defendant will now serve the rest of his life in prison.