Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Conviction of Murderer Found Guilty 38 Years After Killing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week affirmed the murder conviction of a man who killed his one-time girlfriend in Fitchburg in 1974, but who was not indicted until 2006 (and not convicted until 2012).  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dame

The defendant briefly dated the 23-year-old victim before her death.  The victim lived with her three-year-old son in a multi-family residence in Fitchburg, with extended family members living on a different floor of the home.  After only a couple of months, the victim began dating another man.  Somebody matching the defendant’s description was seen lurking around the victim’s apartment on and around the night of her murder.  On January 7, 1974, the victim’s body was discovered half-naked on her bed.  Her throat had been slashed and her blood was pooling on her mattress.  It appeared someone had broken into her apartment, and the defendant’s fingerprints were found on the door above the broken latch.  The defendant had several scratches on his cheek and police recovered scrapings from underneath the victim’s fingernails.  However, due to the unavailability of DNA testing at the time of the murder, the scrapings found underneath the victim’s fingernails were not analyzed.  Despite interviewing the defendant several times during the investigation, the police never arrested him for murdering the victim.

In 1999, a state chemist sent the scrapings found from underneath the victim’s fingernails to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing.  The FBI was able to obtain genetic profiles of the defendant, the man the victim dated after the defendant (and shortly before her death), and a third man who had been wrongly accused of being involved in the victim’s death at a later date.  The FBI’s analysis of the scraping found under the victim’s nails could not exclude the defendant as the source (but did exclude the other two men).  There was a one in 2.2 million chance the DNA belonged to the defendant or one of his blood relatives.  Based on this new evidence, the Commonwealth indicted the defendant for murder.

The defendant testified at trial that he was with his sister at all relevant times on the night of the murder and his niece was responsible for scratching his face.  The defendant’s sister died years before the trial.  The Commonwealth called rebuttal witnesses to testify the defendant had not been at his sister’s home for periods of time during the night in question.  The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder.  His main complaint on appeal was that his constitutional rights had been violated by the lengthy delay between the crime and his prosecution.  He had filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was heard and denied by a superior court judge.

In order for a case to be dismissed because of the type of delay that existed in this case, the defendant must establish: (1) he suffered substantial, actual prejudice to his defense; and (2) the delay was intentionally or recklessly caused by the Commonwealth.  In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the trial judge that the defendant had not satisfied either prong of the test.  With respect to the prejudice prong, the Court pointed out that the proposed testimony of the sister would have been rebutted by several non-interested, non-blood related witnesses who testified the defendant was out and about on the night of the victim’s death.  Therefore, according to the SJC, the sister’s testimony would not have significantly aided the defendant’s case.  The defendant also could not prove, said the SJC, that the delay in his prosecution resulted in recklessness by the prosecution.  Instead, the Commonwealth had properly investigated the case in the 1970s, had followed up with DNA testing when it became available in the 1990s, and had retested the forensic materials with more advanced testing in the 2000s.  The Commonwealth had moved as quickly as it could have given the evolving nature of DNA testing.

Every person who is convicted of a felony in Massachusetts is required to provide a sample of his or her DNA for inclusion in the state DNA database.  This case illustrates the incredible danger to defendants who have previously been involved with, but not prosecuted for, criminal activity.