Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Murder Conviction in Baseball Bat Beating Death

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a defendant who beat a man to death with a baseball bat in Chelsea.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Chicas.

On December 24, 2005, the defendant and the victim were partying at the same house in Chelsea when the victim inappropriately spoke to, and touched, the defendant’s girlfriend.  The defendant confronted the victim and during the ensuring argument the defendant punched the victim in the face.  The defendant and his friend, Jesus Villanueva, escorted the victim outside and beat him with beer bottles.  The victim ran away but returned a short time later to look for his cell phone.  The physical altercation between the defendant and the victim resumed and several men began kicking the victim.  After leaving the home for a second time, the victim returned yet again and this time was beaten by the defendant with a baseball bat (and kicked by Villanueva).  The defendant and Villanueva pursued the victim as he tried to run away and when they caught him in a nearby parking lot, they beat him until they believed he was dead.  The defendant and Villanueva returned to the party, where the defendant asserted he had killed the victim and ordered the witnesses to keep their mouths shut.  Later in the evening, the defendant and Villanueva returned to the parking lot and realized the victim was still alive.  They once again beat him and finally killed him.  The next morning, Villanueva told the defendant he was going to San Francisco and then home to El Salvador.  He departed on a bus and hasn’t been seen since.  The defendant initially fled to New Jersey, but turned himself into the police two weeks later, claiming that Villanueva had killed the victim.  A Suffolk Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.  He appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

The defendant’s primary contention on appeal was that the trial judge had interfered with his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him by limiting his ability to question the witnesses about their immigration statuses.  Several of the Commonwealth’s witnesses were undocumented immigrants and the defendant wanted the jury to know they were in the United States illegally.  The defendant argued the witnesses, as a result of their undocumented statuses, might be more inclined to cooperate with the prosecutor.  The judge ruled that the defense attorney could only ask the witnesses whether they were in this country legally if it could be established that the witnesses discussed their immigration statuses with police officers during the investigation.  If there was evidence that a witness was testifying in order to curry favor with the prosecutor, the defense attorney was permitted to explore that witness’ potential bias.  However, if a witness’ immigration status was never discussed with a police officer, the defense attorney was prohibited from asking the witness about it at trial.  The defendant argued on appeal that the trial judge had committed reversible error by prohibiting his attorney from exploring the immigration status of most of the witnesses.  The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.  The Court ruled the trial judge had properly allowed the defendant to explore the immigration issue if it could be established that the issue had been previously raised with the police (for example, a detective told one of the witnesses he would write a supportive letter if the witness applied to become a citizen).  If there was no evidence that a witness was angling for preferential treatment from the Commonwealth as a result of his or her undocumented status, it would have been improper for the defendant to raise the issue during cross-examination.  The SJC pointed out that a witness who was undocumented would be less likely, not more likely, to cooperate with the prosecutor.  Accordingly, the defendant’s confrontation rights were not violated and the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.