Supreme Judicial Court – February 1, 2012
Facts: Defendant appeals his 2007 convictions for murder in the first degree of Julio Ceus and Natalie Sumner who were shot and killed by two men during a robbery at Julio's apartment. Although no forensic evidence linked the defendant to the murders, the Commonwealth built its case on witness identification, records from Julio's and the defendant's cellular telephones, and surveillance footage capturing the defendant's vehicle behind the victim's apartment building just after the murders occurred.
At trial, the judge empanelled sixteen jurors through a process of group questioning and individual voir dire. As the empanelment progressed, the prosecutor objected to the defendant's use of a peremptory challenge against juror no. 78, arguing that the defendant was improperly excluding members from the jury on account of their race. The judge requested a group-neutral justification from the Defendant who reasoned that juror no. 78 worked on the reelection committee of the mayor of Boston, that she and her husband were lawyers, and that her nephew was a police officer. The judge found that such reasons were "not legitimate," and this juror was subsequently selected as one of two alternate jurors.
To assess the admissibility of third-party culprit evidence, the judge later allowed voir dire examinations of two witnesses during the course of the trial. The first was Julio Ceus’ brother Bermane, who testified that a few days before his death, Julio mentioned that he had a problem with a woman named Joanne and that some of her friends were looking for him. Bermane did not know any details of the problem with "Joanne" nor could he identify her friend. The judge concluded that there were “no substantial connecting links between this mystery person and this crime." Commonwealth v. O'Brien, 432 Mass. 578 (2000).
Later in the trial, the judge also permitted a voir dire of Bermane’s girlfriend, Goodwin who testified that nine days before the murder, Julio had telephoned her crying and upset about stuff in his past “that could catch up to him". Goodwin also testified that the day before the murders, she, Julio, and the defendant were together at a party and that Julio told her the defendant would drive him home, although he later changed his mind. Goodwin then testified that Julio told her that "he didn't feel safe in his apartment" On cross-examination by the prosecutor, Goodwin conceded that Julio never specified who or what he feared. Relying again on O'Brien, the judge found this evidence to be "not relevant…overly prejudicial, confusing to the jury” and most importantly there was still an absence of connecting links between unknown “other” perpetrators and the crime. He determined, however, that Goodwin's testimony regarding Julio's willingness to drive with the defendant was independently admissible and allowed limited questioning on that point and observations of interactions between the defendant and Julio.
On appeal, Defendant claims he was denied a fair trial because the judge disallowed one of his peremptory challenges and barred the third-party culprit evidence he sought to present. The defendant also asks that his convictions be reversed and that he be granted a new trial.
Issue 1: Whether the Defendant was denied a fair trial because the judge denied him the use of a peremptory challenge by seating juror no. 78.
No. Where a juror that is seated over the defendant's challenge does not participate in deliberations, the defendant does not face the risk of a juror he perceives as biased against him influencing the verdict in his case. Because the juror was an alternate she did not deliberate in the defendant's case and the judge's decision to disallow the defendant's peremptory challenge against juror no. 78 could not amount to reversible error.
Issue 2: Whether the judge properly excluded the third-party culprit evidence the defendant sought to admit through Bermane and Goodwin.
Yes. Trial judges are permitted to exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by certain other factors such as unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or potential to mislead the jury. The standard is whether the third-party culprit evidence tends to prove that someone other than the defendant committed the crime, or whether the evidence is speculative, remote, or lacks any connection with the crime charged." Commonwealth v. Ruell, 459 Mass. 126, 130-131 (2011). Based on the testimony of these witnesses, Julio feared some consequence of his "problem" with "Joanne" or other "stuff in his past." Yet, neither Bermane nor Goodwin could identify the individuals whom Julio feared, nor could they establish any ties between these unknown persons and the murders. Because the testimony provides scant information about the basis or source of Julio's fears, any links drawn from it to the murders are entirely speculative. As such, the evidence is of minimal probative value, and its admission would pose a danger of unfair prejudice to the Commonwealth because it inevitably diverts jurors' attention away from the defendant on trial and onto the third party, and essentially requires the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the third-party culprit did not commit the crime. Commonwealth v. Silva-Santiago, 453 Mass. 782, 800-801 (2009). Therefore, the judge properly weighed these considerations, and correctly deemed the proffered evidence inadmissible.
Issue 3: Whether the excluded evidence that conveys Julio's apparent fears for his personal safety was admissible under the then-existing mental condition exception to the hearsay rule.
No. The general prohibition on hearsay evidence prohibits the admission of a statement made out of court which is offered to prove the truth of what it asserted. An exception to this rule provides that certain statements "of a person as to his or her present friendliness, hostility, intent, knowledge, or other mental condition are admissible to prove such mental condition." Mass. G. Evid. § 803(3)(B)(i) (2011). However, hearsay must also be relevant. See Mass. G. Evid., supra at § 402 & note at 33. Here, the defendant sought to introduce the excluded statements to prove that Julio was afraid of an unknown third party or parties prior to his death. The evidence, here, provides little relevant insight into the likelihood that such individuals, and not the defendant, committed the crime. Further, the judge allowed testimony regarding Julio's willingness to drive with the defendant and Bermane’s reference to the defendant as "Julio's best friend." The jury was in no way precluded from assessing the relevance of Julio's relationship with the defendant in considering the defendant's guilt. They were merely prohibited from considering evidence that had no bearing on that inquiry.
Issue 4: Whether the Defendant is entitled to a reversal of his convictions and a new trial under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.
No. Based on the foregoing reasons, relief under § 33E is not warranted. (HG)