Massachusetts Trial Judge’s Improper Admission of Highly Prejudicial Evidence Results in Successful Appeal From Murder Conviction

In 2003 a Plymouth County Massachusetts jury sitting on a murder case in Brockton convicted Solange Anestal of murder in the first degree. The facts of the case are as follows. The defendant and her boyfriend lived together in an apartment in Brockton, Massachusetts. On June 26, 2003 the two were home with two friends. Anestal and her boyfriend, Petitry got into an argument. Petitry did not want her going out, where she would likely spend the night with other men smoking pot. Anestal complained over the phone to a friend that Petitry was treating her like a slave, refusing to permit her to leave the house. Petitry threatened to move out and started packing. He and the defendant argued loudly. One of the friends in the house saw Petitry holding Anestal down on the bed. She was spitting at him, telling him to move. The friends heard glass break and then saw Anestal stab Petitry in the chest with some broken glass while stating that she was going to kill him. Petitry died from the stab wounds.

Anestal defended on the theory that at the time of the crime she lacked criminal responsibility. In particular, she claimed that she suffered from post traumatic stress disorder resulting from years of emotional and physical abuse. The abuse started when she was one year old and continued until the time of the stabbing. The abuse involved family members and several men with whom she had relationships. Medical testimony supported the defense. The jury rejected the defense finding that Anestal acted with deliberate premeditation.

On appeal the defendant raised several issues. Two of these issues establish the basis for reversing the conviction. The first, that the judge improperly admitted prior bad act evidence against Anestal. Particularly that she had hit her young son twice and that the defendant was the subject of a DSS investigation. The second involves the trial judge’s refusal to instruct on the excessive use of force in self-defense. If the jury believed this to be the case it could properly have convicted the defendant of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

Read Case: Commonwealth v. Anestal.pdf

Of particular interest to me as a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer is the prior bad act issue. All too often judges in the trial courts in Massachusetts will permit the introduction of prior bad act evidence against a defendant. They rationalize that doing so is permitted when the prosecution is offering the bad act evidence “common scheme, pattern of operation, absence of accident or mistake, identity, intent or motive.” This type of evidence is also admissible to rebut contentions made by the defendant at trial. The threshold for admitting such evidence is low and rarely will a case be reversed on this basis. This case however is different. The Supreme Judicial Court correctly recognized that admitting this evidence likely had an improper impact on the jury. The prior bad act evidence in this case told the jury more about Anestal than they were entitled to know. The court believed that such information was unfairly prejudicial and that the right to a fair trial was violated.

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