Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Murder Conviction, Life Sentence in Jamaica Plain Killing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who shot and killed his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lopez

The defendant was staying overnight with his girlfriend at her Jamaica Plain apartment on March 11, 2009.  They were asleep when the girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, soon to be the victim, arrived and barged into the bedroom.  Upon seeing the defendant lying naked in the bed, the victim threatened to blow his head off, while claiming he was married to the defendant’s girlfriend.  The girlfriend went outside with the victim and they had a calm conversation that lasted around 45 minutes.  While they chatted outside, the defendant left the apartment building.  When he returned, neighbors saw him armed with weapon that appeared to be a shotgun.  The defendant approached the victim and shot him once in the chest.  After the victim fell to the ground, the defendant kicked him and swore at him.  The gunshot caused catastrophic injuries to the victim’s gallbladder, liver, pancreas, bowel, and aorta.  He was pronounced dead at the scene of the shooting.   Neighbors testified that the victim and the defendant’s girlfriend were not arguing or yelling at one another.  The victim did not possess any weapons prior to the shooting.  A Boston jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and he appealed.

The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the trial judge interfered with his constitutional right to mount a defense by refusing to allow him to introduce evidence of the victim’s prior violent activities.  The defendant did not provide specific instances of violence but asserted the victim had regularly beaten his girlfriend when they were involved in a relationship.  Therefore, according to the defendant, evidence of the victim’s prior violent conduct was relevant to determine whether he acted in self-defense or in defense of his girlfriend.  The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the trial judge was correct to prohibit the introduction of such evidence.  The Court said the first problem with the defendant’s position was that he failed to provide the necessary details related to the victim’s history of violence.  But even if the defendant had fully detailed the allegations of the victim’s abuse, he was not entitled to assert self-defense at his trial.  A defendant who is claiming self-defense in a murder case is required to introduce evidence that he: (1) reasonably believed he was in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death; (2) did everything possible to avoid physical combat before using deadly force; and (3) did not use more force than what was necessary.  The Court ruled the evidence at trial did not support a theory that the defendant had acted in self-defense (or in defense of his girlfriend).  The Court pointed out that while the victim and the defendant’s girlfriend were talking outside of the apartment for 45 minutes, the defendant could have called the police or fled.  Instead, he armed himself with a gun and, without warning, shot the victim.  Because there was no evidence that the defendant made any effort to avoid physical combat, he was not entitled to assert self-defense at his trial.