Recently in Criminal Defense Category

March 17, 2014

Massachusetts High Court Examines Statute Permitting Defendants to Seek Post-Conviction DNA Testing

Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued its opinion in Commonwealth v. Wade relative to the standards applicable to M.G.L. c. 278A, a statute enacted in 2012 that provides convicted and incarcerated defendants access to forensic and scientific analysis of evidence used to convict them. The statute's purpose was "to remedy the injustice of wrongful convictions of factually innocent persons by allowing access to analyses of biological material with newer forensic and scientific techniques."

In Wade, the defendant was convicted in 1997 of first-degree murder on a theory of felony-murder and aggravated rape. The defendant was accused of raping the 83-year-old victim who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and who lived on the farm where the defendant worked. The victim was allegedly found naked on the defendant's bed on the property with injuries, which later led to complications and eventually her death. Evidence found on the victim and her clothing showed the presence of semen and sperm, but neither the defendant nor the Commonwealth sought DNA testing of the evidence. Since at least 2002, the defendant has been attempting to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence against him, with the belief that it will exonerate him of the crimes for which he has been convicted. Each such attempt has been unsuccessful.

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March 10, 2014

SJC Announces New Standard for Withdrawal of Guilty Pleas in Cases Involving Annie Dookhan Misconduct

On March 5, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Scott, relative to the standard for permitting a criminal defendant to withdraw his guilty plea in cases in which Annie Dookhan, the state forensic drug chemist, was directly involved in the analysis of drug evidence that preceded the defendant's guilty plea. In doing so, the SJC has announced a new standard applicable to guilty pleas to address the hundreds of criminal drug cases that potentially involved Dookhan's misconduct and may have interfered with the proper administration of criminal justice.

The SJC's opinion recounts in detail Dookhan's extensive misconduct and the investigations that exposed it. Dookhan's alleged misconduct, which began as early as 2004 and occurred into 2011, included removing drug samples against lab protocol; forging the initials of evidence officers on lab records; improperly grouping samples from a number of cases together, and reporting results for all sample tests that applied only to a few tests; and intentionally contaminating samples, including turning negative samples into positive samples. Because Dookhan's misconduct seems to have been motivated only by a desire to increase her apparent productivity, Dookhan has been unable to identify those specific cases in which she improperly tested samples or inaccurately reported on tested samples.

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February 27, 2014

SJC Holds District Court Judge Should Not Have Accepted Defendant's Guilty Plea

This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that a defendant who had pleaded guilty to resisting arrest was entitled to a new trial on the charges, where the district court judge failed to determine that a sufficient factual basis existed for the resisting arrest charge.

The SJC analyzed the applicable criminal procedure in Commonwealth v. Hart. Under Massachusetts law, a guilty plea will generally be valid if it is made voluntarily and intelligently. To be made "intelligently," one of three things must occur: (1) the judge explains the elements of the crime to the defendant; (2) the defendant's attorney explains the elements of the crime to the defendant; or (3) the defendant admits the facts constituting the crime, even if he is not aware that the facts admitted amount to a crime. In this case, both the defendant and his attorney confirmed that the attorney had discussed the charges or the nature and elements of the offense. Based upon that, the district court judge accepted the guilty plea and sentenced the defendant.

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February 10, 2014

Mere Use of License Plate Cover Not Grounds for Traffic Stop

Today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Bernard, affirming the decision of a Lawrence District Court judge to suppress evidence obtained from the defendant's vehicle when a Massachusetts State Trooper pulled the defendant's vehicle over after observing a plastic cover on the vehicle's rear license plate. The decision resulted in the suppression of statements and evidence supporting firearm charges against the defendant.

In June 2009, the trooper observed the defendant operating a vehicle on Route 495 southbound. The trooper, who was traveling in the first lane, allegedly was unable to see the license plate of the defendant's vehicle, which he observed from an angle as the defendant's vehicle traveled in the third lane. The license plate was covered with a clear, but tinted, plastic cover. For this reason only, the trooper pulled up behind the defendant's vehicle and activated his cruiser lights to pull the defendant over. The trooper observed no other traffic violations.

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January 27, 2014

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel May Be Grounds for Withdrawal of Guilty Plea

Today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Almonte, discussing the standard for a criminal defendant to withdraw his guilty plea on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.

In 2005, the defendant was charged with one count of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and one count of assault and battery on a child causing injury, arising out of allegations that he had physically abused his minor daughter. Following plea discussions, the defendant and the Commonwealth agreed to plead guilty on both counts, with concurrent sentences of one-year of confinement, suspended for two years, upon certain probationary terms. The defendant and the Commonwealth submitted a "Tender of Plea" form, also known as the "green sheet," to the Lawrence District Court, outlining these terms.

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January 13, 2014

Convictions Reversed Based Upon Unlawful Police Entry Into Apartment During Execution of Arrest Warrant

Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reversed a defendant's two convictions on the grounds that both convictions were based on evidence that was seized by the police during an illegal entry into the defendant's home to execute an arrest warrant.

In Commonwealth v. Gentile, a police trooper spoke with the defendant about one week prior to his arrest, and viewed the defendant's identification card which listed the defendant's address as an apartment in Leominster. The trooper later learned that there were two outstanding arrest warrants for the defendant. After he confirmed that the Leominster address matched the defendant's address on his driver's license, the trooper went to the apartment to execute the arrest warrants.

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December 30, 2013

Massachusetts High Court Strikes Down Mandatory Sentence of Life Without Parole For Juveniles

Until last week, Massachusetts' statute imposing a mandatory sentence of life without parole for those convicted of first degree murder applied equally to adults and juveniles who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. However, interpreting a 2012 decision from the United States Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") has held that denying such juveniles the opportunity to be considered for parole is unconstitutional under both the federal Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

In 1981, Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 years old at the time, stabbed a man nine times, killing him. Diatchenko was convicted of first degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentence ensured that Diatchenko would die in prison.

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December 23, 2013

Speedy Trial: A Guaranteed Right Or An "Either/Or" Choice?

On December 5, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral arguments in Commonwealth v. Taylor, a criminal case that seeks a balance between a defendant's right to a speedy trial and his right to receive "automatic discovery" from the prosecution.

In addition to a criminal defendant's right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 36 provides that a criminal defendant must be brought to trial within twelve months of the date of his arraignment. Under the rule, some specific periods are excludable from the total calculation of the twelve months. If this right is violated, then the defendant is entitled to a dismissal of the criminal charges against him in the case.

The Massachusetts rules also require that the prosecution automatically turn over to defense counsel certain items and information that are relevant and material to the prosecution's case or to the defendant's potential defenses. Such information and items include witness statements, statements by the defendant, and other evidence collected by the prosecution in connection with the charges against the defendant.

In Taylor, the defendant was arraigned on murder charges in Suffolk Superior Court in August 2006. By the fall of 2006, the prosecution still had not turned over critical evidence that fell within the mandatory automatic discovery provisions of the Massachusetts rules. That evidence included a recording of the police interrogation of the defendant and statements by a chief witness (who the defendant claimed was actually responsible for the alleged murder), as well as seventeen audio recordings of police interviews conducted in May 2006 and the audio and transcripts of eleven witnesses who testified before a grand jury. Although the court ordered the prosecutor to produce the missing automatic discovery items, the prosecutor did not timely do so, and requested additional time. Defense counsel made clear to the prosecution and the court that, notwithstanding the prosecution's request for more time to comply with its mandatory discovery obligations, the defendant was not waiving his right to a speedy trial. The court granted the prosecution additional time, but noted that "Rule 36 will not be waived from this date until the time of compliance."

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