The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction against a Lawrence drug dealer who shot to death a man who was seeking to buy drugs from him. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hernandez.
On June 7, 2009, the defendant was using heroin at his home with his friend, Jorge Santiago. During the evening hours, the victim knocked on the door and said he wanted to buy drugs. The defendant told him to leave and call his (the defendant’s) “workers” for assistance. An argument ensued when the victim asserted that the defendant’s workers did not answer their phones. Eventually, the victim walked back to his car, which was parked near the defendant’s home. As the victim started the car, the defendant approached the passenger side and continued the argument. The defendant then pulled out a gun and shot into the car before walking away. The victim’s car drove down the street before veering off the road, crashing into a fence, and striking a few parked cars. Passersby discovered the victim sitting in the driver’s seat suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest. He died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the defendant had hidden the gun in a tree stump in the backyard of his neighbor. Later, his friend Miguel Sierra retrieved the gun and made arrangements for the defendant to travel to Connecticut the next day. Six months later, the defendant was found in Connecticut and brought back to Massachusetts for trial. An Essex Superior Court jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and he appealed.
The defendant advanced several appellate arguments, none of which persuaded the Supreme Judicial Court he is entitled to a new trial. The defendant first complained that the Commonwealth did not present evidence to the grand jurors that a confidential informant told the police that someone he knew claimed to “put a hit out” on the victim for failing to pay for heroin he had been previously provided. Massachusetts law says a prosecutor is required to share exculpatory (good for the defendant) evidence with grand jurors when the exculpatory evidence would greatly undermine a witness’ credibility or greatly undermine the credibility of the Commonwealth’s case. The SJC concluded the confidential informant’s evidence did not constitute significant exculpatory evidence. None of the testimony offered by grand jury witnesses would have been impacted by the confidential informant’s statement. Further, the defendant’s friend who was using heroin with him immediately before the shooting testified before the grand jury that he witnessed the defendant shoot into the victim’s car. Given this evidence, an uncorroborated quote about a mystery witness putting a “hit” on the victim was unlikely to have affected the grand jury’s decision.
The defendant also complained his attorney was prevented from fully cross-examining Miguel Sierra (the defendant’s friend who collected the gun from its hiding place in the stump) at trial. Sierra had made a deal with the Commonwealth for a reduction in sentences related to his own two drug cases in exchange for his testimony against the defendant. The Court disagreed with the defendant’s analysis that Sierra’s testimony had been improperly curtailed. In fact, Sierra acknowledged he was cooperating with the prosecutor because he had received a “deal” and provided the details of the sentence reductions he was receiving. There was nothing improper about the limits the trial judge placed on defense counsel with respect to this line of questioning.
The defendant will now spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of being paroled.