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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Conviction Against Man Who Murdered His Mother

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed the conviction of a 19-year-old Chelsea man who was found guilty of murdering his mother.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cartright.

In August of 2006, the victim was working her overnight shift as a nurse at a Cambridge hospital.  Surveillance footage captured her as she finished her shift and presumably returned home to Chelsea, where she owned a three-story home.  The victim, the defendant, and the victim’s nine-year-old son lived together on the second floor until the victim told the defendant to leave following an argument.  The defendant continued to live in the building, as he was dating a girl who lived with her family in the first floor.  He told his girlfriend a few times that he wanted to kill his mother.  After the victim failed to surface following her overnight shift, the defendant called the cops to report her missing.  Police officers made several visits to the home during the ensuing week and a half, and finally obtained a warrant to search the home.  The cops smelled a foul odor near a hallway closet, and when they looked inside they found the victim’s body, wrapped in a sleeping bag, hidden behind numerous other items.  The defendant was placed under arrest for stealing the victim’s phone (he had been spotted using the phone after the victim disappeared) and was transported to the police station.  The cops interrogated him for nearly five hours and were able to extract a confession from him.  The defendant said he hit his mother with a hammer, and DNA evidence admitted at trial supported the defendant’s confession.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress his statement and a superior court judge denied the motion.  The defendant then went to trial and a Suffolk Superior Court jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.  He was sentenced to serve life in prison and appealed.

The primary issue on appeal was whether the superior court judge had properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress his statement.  The defendant agued the manner in which the officers conducted the interrogation rendered his statement involuntary.  The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed and affirmed the conviction.  The evidence at the motion to suppress hearing and the trial established the officers engaged in techniques called “maximizing” and “minimizing.”  “Maximizing” involves the officers overstating their certainty of the defendant’s guilt, while “minimizing” involves the officers diminishing the seriousness of the crime and suggesting the defendant might be treated leniently if he cooperates.  In this case, the officers engaged in both practices.  The cops told the defendant they were certain he had killed his mother.  They also told him that they were open to the idea that the killing might have been accidental or the defendant might have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crime.  The cops also promised to tell the prosecutor that the defendant had cooperated if he confessed to the crime.  The SJC concluded that the maximizing and minimizing that occurred in this case were permissible.  The Court noted that the police did not lie to the defendant (by telling him, for example, there was imaginary physical evidence that connected him to the crime).  The Court said the officers did not say anything to the defendant that would have undermined the defendant’s ability to choose freely to confess to the crime.  Accordingly, the statement was properly admitted and the conviction was upheld.

This case is another example of the danger that faces a criminal suspect who chooses to speak to the police.  A person being charged with the crime should never talk to the cops without first consulting with a criminal defense attorney.

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