The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a superior court judge gave erroneous instructions to a jury in a murder case that prejudiced the defendant and entitled him to a new trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Allen.
In November of 2010, two groups of people were arguing on Homestead Street in Roxbury. The argument started when a woman told the defendant’s half-brother he was not allowed to smoke marijuana in the common hallway of her apartment building. The defendant’s half-brother later called the woman a bitch, and she confronted him and eventually punched him in the face. The defendant arrived at the scene following the assault on his half-brother, and by that point there were two groups of people – one supporting the defendant’s half-brother and the other supporting the woman who punched him – engaged in an argument. As the argument escalated, the defendant’s friend became involved in a fist fight with the soon-to-be decedent. Witnesses watched the fight from nearby porches and saw the two men swing their fists at one another. As the fight progressed, the defendant’s friend pulled out a knife. The victim also possessed a knife, but it was unclear from the trial testimony whether he had taken his knife out of his pocket and whether the blade of the knife was operable. In any event, after his friend brandished the knife, the defendant pulled out a gun and shot the victim once in the lower back. Witnesses heard the defendant comment that, “you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” The victim was pronounced dead upon his arrival at the hospital. The defendant fled the scene but was located shortly thereafter at a nearby subway station. He told the police he had just gotten off the bus and denied being involved in the shooting.
The police searched the apartment building near where the shooting had occurred and recovered the defendant’s gun hidden behind a box in a basement storage area. The defendant was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Following his conviction for second-degree murder, the defendant appealed and argued the judge had given improper guidance to the jury about his right to use force to defend his friend. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed, reversed the murder conviction, and remanded the case to the superior court for a new trial.
The trial judge told the jury that while the defendant was permitted to use reasonable force to defend his friend, if the defendant had used excessive force, he was not acting in lawful defense of another person. The SJC said the trial judge’s instruction incorrectly suggested that if the jurors concluded the defendant had used excessive force, he must be found guilty of murder. However, Massachusetts law provides that if a person is lawfully using force in defense of another person, but uses excessive or unreasonable force, the defendant is guilty of manslaughter instead of murder. The SJC concluded that the trial judge’s incorrect instructions failed to provide the jury with a correct understanding of legal principle of defense of another person.
The case will be sent back to Suffolk Superior Court and the defendant will be given another opportunity to convince a jury he was reasonably defending his friend.