Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Murder Conviction Holding That Certain Evidence, Mostly Statements of the Defendant and Co-Defendant Was Improperly Admitted

Earlier today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed a first degree murder conviction in the case of Commonwealth v. Santos. Santos had been convicted on a felony murder theory. The Court found the following facts:

On July 26, 2005 shortly after 5:30 in the evening the victim was robbed and shot in the chest on a busy downtown Lowell street. Despite the presence of many witnesses no one was able to identify those involved in the crime other than to state that they were young Hispanic males. Santos’ flight from the scene was aided by and individual who eventually testified for the prosecution. That witness, Jesus Antonio Marquez told the jury that he was the getaway driver and the Santos and co-defendant Jose Luis Claudio Benitez knew the victim to be a heroin dealer from whom they had purchased heroin on multiple occasions. On the day of the crime Benitez arranged with the victim to buy a small amount of heroin. Benitez later changed the plan suggesting that he, Santos and Marquez rob the victim. Marquez drove. Benitez handed a gun to Santos. There was an expressed intention not to shoot the victim. Near the crime scene Santos and Benitez exited the car. Marquez heard a shot fired. The two defendants got back into Marquez’ car several minutes later. Benitez asked Santos why he shot the victim. The three went to Benitez’s sister’s home. Benitez told his sister that he told Santos not to shoot the victim and that “the other guy shot someone” notwithstanding his protestations. One of the victim’s drug customers testified to purchasing heroin from the victim shortly before the shooting and that he also saw Santos in the area. He identified Santos from prison photographs. Santos was arrested. He asked the police what for. After receiving a response he asked “is that it?”. Santos denied knowledge of the crime and admitted that he had been incarcerated for drugs. Marquez told the police about the robbery, the crime and the escape. Benitez and Santos were tried together.

On appeal Santos argued that the statement he made while in police custody was taken in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. At one point during the interrogation Santos told the police “I’m not going on with this conversation” and “I want a lawyer…”. The officers left the room. They returned, failed to honor the request for counsel and continued their questioning. The Court found this to be violative of Miranda and held that Santos’ statement should have been suppressed. The invocation of the right to counsel must be honored. The admission of the statement further introduced, improperly, multiple references to Santos’ prior bad acts. Finally, the statement contained police accusations that Santos was lying as well as references to unnamed witnesses who knew that the defendant shot the victim. All of this required a reversal of the conviction.

Santos’ appeal also challenged the admissibility of Benitez’ statements to his sister that he “told [Santos] not to do it” and that “[Santos] shot the kid”. The Court held that such statements should not have been admitted as evidence. The statements were self serving and designed to distance Benitez’ involvement from Santos’. Furthermore, the statements were not part of the joint venture and should have been excluded. Benitez’s post arrest statements implicating Santos in the crime was also error. The statements were made after the joint venture had ended and after a joint venturer had been apprehended thus making the statements inadmissible. Admission thereof required reversal.

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