The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who poisoned his wife to death with antifreeze. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Keown.
The evidence at trial established the defendant and the victim had dated in college and had been married for about seven and a half years when they moved to Massachusetts in 2004. Their move (from Missouri) resulted from the defendant’s lie that he had been accepted into the Harvard Business School. The victim, a registered nurse, started to become ill in May of 2004. She exhibited symptoms of the flu, including diarrhea and nausea, and was prescribed medicine to treat reflux disease. About three months later, the victim suffered from slurred speech, dizziness, and an inability to walk. The defendant took her to the hospital and the medical staff concluded she was likely the victim of poisoning. When questioned, the victim insisted she felt safe at home. On September 4, 2004, the defendant called the hospital to report his wife was confused, had garbled speech, and was struggling to walk. A doctor told the defendant to immediately bring his wife to the hospital. Instead, the defendant waited until that night to transport the victim to the hospital, at which point she was unconscious. She slipped into a coma and died four days later. Shortly after the defendant’s wife died, he returned to Missouri where he remained until he was arrested about a year later. After the defendant was arrested, his mother mailed his laptop computer to his attorney in Massachusetts. The police obtained a warrant allowing seizure and examination of the computer. It was discovered that the defendant had conducted Internet searches for “antifreeze death human” and “poison recipe” while his wife was still alive. The Commonwealth’s theory of the case was that the defendant murdered his wife to cover up the fact that he had lied about attending Harvard Business School and was actually deep in debt at the time of the murder. A Middlesex Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he appealed.
The most interesting issue on appeal was whether the warrant to search the defendant’s computer had been properly issued. The defendant argued the Commonwealth lacked probable cause to obtain the search warrant. He suggested there was an insufficient nexus between the alleged murder and the items that were sought from the computer. The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the defendant’s nexus argument. The Court pointed out that the evidence established the defendant was an accomplished Web designer who had forged documents from, among other places, Harvard Business School. These forgeries were related to the defendant’s motive to murder the victim – that he was in financial ruin and killed her, in part, to obtain her life insurance policy. Further, if the victim had been poisoned by antifreeze, it is reasonable to believe the poisoner would have conducted Internet research before committing the crime. Accordingly, concluded the Court, there was a sufficient nexus between the defendant’s alleged crime and the evidence that was contained on the computer.
A first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence in Massachusetts.