If You Participate in a Felony, a Murder Conviction Might be Easier Than You Think

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a murder conviction in a Worcester case today, it highlighted a perilous collateral consequence – a murder conviction – that might result from participation in a felony.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Mazariego.

Years after a prostitute was murdered near Benefit Street in Worcester, the defendant was charged with raping and murdering her.  The victim’s demise was unquestionably horrific.  She was found naked below the waist with her legs spread apart.  Her face was bloody and her shirt was soaked with her own blood.  Three heavy, bloody rocks were found near her body, as was a condom.  About a month after the murder, the defendant told a third party that he and his roommate had  been with the victim and the roommate had killed her by hitting her in the head.  The roommate later confirmed his involvement, saying he had killed the victim following a dispute over money.  In an act of cosmic karma, the roommate was shot to death the following year, as was the third party who had heard the roommate’s confession.  The third party was paralyzed.  When he was meeting with prosecutors in anticipation of testifying in the shooting case, he disclosed the defendant’s participation in the murder of the prostitute.

The police had a series of interviews with the defendant during which he gave inconsistent and increasingly inculpatory statements about his involvement in the crime.  He said he was with his roommate and the victim and he put on a condom to have sex with the victim.  However, as the defendant was lying on top of the victim, she said no because she had not been paid.  The defendant then hugged her, stood up and walked away.  He told the roommate what had happened and watched as the roommate then beat the victim to death.  The subsequent police investigation revealed the victim had likely been bludgeoned to death as she was standing up.  She had vaginal abrasions suggesting she had had sex in the day leading up to her death.  DNA on the rocks was likely left by the victim and the defendant’s roommate.  Finally, the interior of the condom found near the victim’s body contained biological material that matched the defendant and the exterior of the condom contained biological material that matched the victim.

A person is guilty of murder if: (1) he was committing or attempting to commit a felony with a maximum sentence of life in prison; (2) the victim’s death occurred during the commission (or attempted commission) of the underlying felony; and (3) the predicate felony was inherently dangerous.  In this case, the Commonwealth’s theory was the defendant participated in an aggravated rape of the victim that led to her death.  The defendant argued on appeal the Commonwealth had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the underlying offense (aggravated rape) and therefore he was foreclosed from being convicted of felony murder.  When criminal defendants challenge the sufficiency of the evidence against them, Massachusetts law requires courts to view the evidence in the “light most favorable to the Commonwealth.”  The defendant argued on appeal that even under that standard, no rational jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) he had penetrated the victim (an element of rape); (2) he did not have the consent of the victim; and (3) he was guilty of aggravated rape (this is important, as the penalty for non-aggravated rape is capped at 20 years, and is therefore not a life felony that would qualify under the felony murder rule).  The Supreme Judicial Court rejected all of these arguments and affirmed his conviction.

The Court ruled a jury could have concluded there was penetration based on the DNA evidence associated with the condom (the defendant’s DNA was on the interior of the condom and the victim’s DNA was on the outside) along with the victim’s vaginal abrasions (despite the fact that the abrasions could have happened at any point during the day leading up to the victim’s death).  Further, the defendant admitted he had been on top of the victim while they were both naked from the waist down and he made ambiguous statements about whether penetration had actually occurred.  The Court said while each of these factors alone did not satisfy the penetration element, their collective impact did.  The Court also ruled that where the victim told the defendant she would not have sex until she was paid, and the defendant acknowledged he had not paid her, the sex was nonconsensual.  Finally, the Court found a jury could have concluded the defendant had acted as a lookout for his roommate as the roommate killed the victim (which would count as a joint enterprise and qualify as an aggravated rape).  The Court based its conclusion on a number of factors that the jury “could” have found based on its review of the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth.

And so, the defendant was properly convicted of felony murder despite the relatively weak evidence that convicted him of the underlying felony.  The SJC’s decision is legally sound.  The criminal system is set up to preclude an appellate court from second guessing a jury, and a jury’s verdict is accordingly given great weight.  This case should serve as a warning to anyone considering committing a felony.  If the felony results in a death, even if the defendant doesn’t kill anyone and doesn’t intend for anyone to die, the defendant may end up spending the rest of his life in prison on a murder conviction.