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Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Murder Conviction After Judge Makes Unconstitutional Discovery Orders

In Commonwealth v. Sliech-Brodeur decided earlier this month the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the first degree murder conviction of a woman who killed her husband. The Court recited the following facts:

The victim and the defendant married in 1994. He was sixty. She was forty nine. They lived in West Springfield and Florida during the winter months. The couple had some marital problems centering on finances. In 2004 these problems escalated. There were discussions about divorce and it became evident that that would materialize. On July 28, 2004 the defendant called her son and told him that there was a problem. He arrived at the home and immediately called the police. The police arrived to find the defendant upset and complaining that the victim had hit her. The victim, her husband was found in the dining room dead. He had been stabbed thirty four times in the chest, neck, head and back. It was suggested to responding officers that the defendant had ingested twenty five Klonopins and that she was suicidal. The defendant’s home was Searched. Officers found blood in the master bedroom, on the sheets, bed and pillows. The case was defended on a theory of lack of criminal responsibility. The Commonwealth rebutted with its own expert.

On appeal the defendant argued prejudice due to certain pre-trial discovery orders. A lower court judge ordered the defendant surrender its expert’s reports, correspondence relating to the defendant, tests and evaluations and the materials supporting their results to the Commonwealth’s expert. The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that these discovery orders were violative of the defendants’ constitutional rights and granted a new trial. All the a court can order in these situations is that the defendant submit to a court ordered psychiatric examination, not the production of materials protected by the work product privilege, attorney-client privilege or protected by the privilege against self-incrimination.

Read Case:

Commonwealth v. Sliech-Brodeur, July 19, 2010

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This case shows the importance of fighting reciprocal discovery orders. Since Commonwealth v. Durham was decided in 2006 prosecutors have pressed judges to order the defense to provide them with any conceivable piece of evidence that might be offered at trial. The Durham case was decided narrowly, 4-3. Thus, challenges to discovery orders, as done here, may create viable appellate issues and the exceptions to Durham will grow. Defense and appellate counsel did a great job in this case.


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