The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday upheld a superior court judge’s decision to grant a new trial to a Mattapan man who had been convicted of shooting to death a 19-year-old man following a baby shower in Roslindale. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Perez.
On March 22, 2003, the defendant and the victim both attended a baby shower along with approximately 100 other people. The shower ended around midnight and people began to congregate outside the function hall. An argument erupted between a man with a gun and a guest from the shower, which resulted in the armed man shooting into a crowd of people. The victim, who was not involved in the argument, tried to run away but was fatally shot in the back. The Commonwealth had no physical evidence connecting the defendant to the shooting. While shell casings were recovered from the murder scene, they were not tied to the defendant in any way. The murder weapon was recovered two months later following an unrelated shooting, and the gun also was not tied to the defendant. The Commonwealth’s entire case relied on two eyewitnesses who identified the defendant as the shooter. Following the murder, the cops compiled a photo array that contained the defendant’s picture (but no pictures of other men who attended the shower). The photo array was shown to six people who saw the shooting or the preceding argument. Only two of the six people picked the defendant out of the array as the shooter.
The defendant initially went on trial in Suffolk Superior Court in 2006. At this trial, after the Commonwealth introduced the testimony of the two people who identified the defendant as the killer, the defense attorney called a witness who testified he was present with the defendant inside the function hall at the time of the shooting. After hearing from the Commonwealth’s identification witnesses and the defendant’s alibi witness, the jury could not reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. The defendant went on trial again the following year, represented by a new attorney. The new attorney inexplicably did not call the alibi witness to testify, and the defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Ten years after his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial and argued his second lawyer had provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to call his alibi witness to testify. The trial judge conducted a hearing where the defense attorney testified that the alibi witness “just slipped through,” and there was no tactical reason why she did not call him to testify. The trial judge concluded the attorney provided ineffective assistance and awarded the defendant a new trial. The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.
The SJC’s task was to determine whether the defense attorney’s performance created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. It involved a two-part inquiry: (1) did the attorney commit an error; and, (2) if so, did the error likely influence the jury’s decision. The Court had no problem concluding the attorney committed error. The state and federal constitutions require a defense attorney to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, which includes talking to a witness who might have exculpatory information. In this case, if the alibi witness was believed by the jury, the defendant necessarily could not have been the shooter. Therefore, it was unquestionably error for the defense attorney to not have interviewed the the witness. The question became, then, whether the error prejudiced the defendant. The trial judge ruled the Commonwealth’s case was “far from overwhelming,” given the lack of physical evidence connecting the defendant to the murder. Mistaken eyewitness identifications are common. In this case, only two of six potential eyewitnesses identified the defendant. The SJC concluded that testimony suggesting the defendant could not have been the shooter might have had a significant impact on the jury’s deliberations, and therefore his attorney’s error prejudiced him.
The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office will now need to decide whether to try the defendant a third time.