Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Sentence Against Somerville Landlord Who Assaulted Her Muslim Tenant

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld the jail sentence and conditions of probation against a 71-year-old Somerville woman who pushed her Muslim tenant down the stairs of her triple-decker.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Obi.   

The defendant, a Christian minister, owns a three-family residence in Somerville and lives on the second floor.  She rented the third floor to the victim (a Muslim woman), her husband, and her five children.  While the lease between the defendant and the victim was only for a period of five months, their relationship soured quickly.  The victim repeatedly complained that her apartment lacked heat and electricity while the defendant complained the victim’s family was too noisy.  According to the victim, the defendant also made disparaging remarks about Muslims, suggesting that they will burn in hell.  The victim filed a complaint against the defendant with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and the defendant attempted to evict the victim.  Tensions boiled over on August 28, 2012, which was three days prior to the expiration of the lease.  That morning, the defendant believed the victim had been ringing her doorbell.  The victim asserted it was construction workers, and not her, who had rung the bell.  The defendant allegedly became angry, yelled at the victim to get out of the house, and shoved the victim down the stairs.  The victim fell down 15-20 stairs and hit her face on a railing.  When the police arrived, the victim’s lip was bleeding and she appeared to be in pain.  The victim and her children were crying. The defendant was arrested and a jury later convicted her of assault and battery.

On appeal, the defendant complained that the trial judge imposed an unconstitutional sentence.  The judge sentenced the defendant to two years in jail, with six months to serve and the balance (18 months) suspended for two years.  This means the defendant was required to immediately serve six months in jail.  After six months, she will be released and will be on probation for two years.  If she violates the terms of her probation, the judge can send her back to jail to serve the remaining 18 months.  This punishment is called a split sentence.  The defendant first argued that requiring her to serve six months in jail violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.  The defendant argued a jail sentence was disproportionately harsh because she was 71 years old at the time of her conviction and she had never before been convicted of a crime.  The Supreme Judicial Court had no problem concluding the punishment was appropriate and proportional to the crime, and ruled the defendant had failed to satisfy her burden of proving the sentence would shock the conscience and offend fundamental notions of human dignity.  Sending the defendant to jail was proper, even if she was an old lady with no prior record.

The defendant also challenged two conditions of her probation.  The trial judge ordered her to attend a class on Islam and to provide written disclosures to all future tenants that: (1) she had been convicted of assaulting a former tenant; and (2) several of her former tenants had sought and obtained harassment prevention orders against her.  With respect to the class on Islam, the SJC refused to consider the defendant’s complaint, because she had not objected in the trial court.  Therefore, her appeal on that issue was waived.  With respect to the disclosure requirement, the SJC acknowledged the defendant might lose rental income as a result of telling potential tenants she had been convicted of assaulting a prior tenant and had had harassment orders issued against her.  However, the condition of probation advanced one important goal of probation – public safety.  Because the probationary condition is reasonably related to the goals of sentencing and probation, the SJC upheld its enforcement.