Mass. Crim. Dig.: Commonwealth v. Howard

Commonwealth v. Howard, 469 Mass. 721 (2014)

I. Facts

On January 28, 2009, Maurice Ricketts was shot in the head while working at Bay State Pool Supplies in Cambridge. The defendant, Clyde Howard, was a handyman at Bay State. After taking out the trash, the defendant entered the warehouse and spoke with the victim. There was yelling, and the defendant “pulled out a gun, and pointed it at the victim,” and then chased him through the warehouse. The defendant fired his gun once, missed the victim, and then continued to follow him out of the warehouse. The operations manager alerted the branch and assistant managers and called 911. The managers ran toward the warehouse and heard two shots fired. They saw the defendant “facing the back of the dumpster with his arm outstretched and pointed slightly downward, and then heard two additional shots.” They then “saw the defendant walk toward the back door, stop, return to the dumpster area, and fire an additional shot.” After the final shot, the defendant “ran to a white van, and drove away.” The victim was found behind the dumpster with a faint pulse and later died at the emergency room.

Later, a police officer discovered the defendant sleeping in the white van. The police officer removed the defendant from the van and proceeded to perform a pat and frisk to find dangerous weapons. The police officer asked the defendant if he had a weapon and the defendant stated he threw it in the Charles River. The police officer arrested the defendant, transported him to the police station in Roxbury, and read him his Miranda rights. During booking the defendant made unsolicited comments. Subsequently, police officers moved the defendant to the Cambridge police department, during which the officer smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath. Though his speech was slurred and he appeared unsteady, “he was not slipping, falling, or stumbling.” During this twenty-five-minute period, the defendant also made more unsolicited comments. After he arrived at the police station and was booked he still appeared somewhat impaired, and the police officers decided to wait until the following day to interview him. The next morning the defendant was asked if he would consent to an interview. The officers then read him his Miranda rights. He indicated he would speak to the officers, but that there were “certain things that might be kind of like sensitive.” He was then asked to initial and sign the Miranda waiver. After a brief period of questioning, the police stopped to administer a Rosairo waiver (explaining his right to a prompt arraignment), which was signed, and then questioning resumed. However, the defendant “stated that he ‘would kind of deviate from the more sensitive matters.’” He further stated that he “would like to stop at that point because it [be]comes more intricate now and who knows what’s going to happen.” However, the officers continued to question the defendant before taking a break and subsequently resuming questioning.

II. Procedural History

The superior court jury found the defendant “guilty of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.” The defendant appealed, arguing: (1) the judges denial of the defendant’s pretrial motion to suppress statements was an error; (2) the court “focused on prior bad acts and character evidence during trial”; (3) the prosecutor made prejudicial statements during his closing argument that “warrant a new trial”; (4) “the jury instruction on mental impairment and the voluntariness of the defendant’s statements were erroneous and warrant reversal of his convictions.”

III. Question Presented

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) considered four questions: (1) whether the judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress statements made during his arrest and interview was an error; (2) whether the superior court “impermissibly focused on prior bad acts and character evidence during trial”; (3) whether the statements made by the prosecutor during his closing argument were prejudicial and warranted a new trial; (4) whether “the jury instruction on mental impairment and the voluntariness of the defendant’s statements were erroneous and warrant[ed] a reversal of his convictions.”

IV. Reasoning and Analysis

The SJC first reviewed the defendant’s argument that: (1) the statements he made during his arrest should have been suppressed because he was intoxicated and thus were involuntary, and (2) the statements made during his interview “were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.” First, to determine voluntariness, the Court must look at the totality of the circumstances to determine if the defendant’s will was overcome to such an extent that his statements were not free and voluntary. The Court looks at relevant factors, such as any promises or inducements by the police, age, education, intelligence, experience, physical and mental condition of the defendant, as well as “whether the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” However, just because one factor is present does not mean the statements made were involuntary. Additionally, just because a defendant is under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not make a statement involuntary. Here, the Court held that the defendant’s statements were voluntary. Even though he was intoxicated, the Court agreed with the superior court: “his mind was rational and his faculties were under control.” Second, to determine if the statements obtained from the defendant during his interview violated his Miranda rights, the Court must consider: (1) whether the officers were required to seek clarification because the defendant’s waiver of his Miranda rights were conditional, and (2) whether he invoked his right to remain silent. First, if the defendant’s waiver of his Miranda rights was conditional, the officers would have been required to seek clarification to continue the interview. Here, the Court held that when the defendant assented to the interview and signed the Miranda waiver he made “an unequivocal, knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his right to silence.”

Second, if the defendant invoked his right to remain silent, the officers should have stopped questioning him when he stated he “would like to stop at that point.” A defendant can invoke his right to remain silent at any time, however it “must be clear and ‘unambiguous,’” to the extent that “‘a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement’ to be an invocation of the Miranda right.” This is determined based on the totality of the circumstances. Here, the Court held that the defendant invoked his right to remain silent when he stated he wanted “to stop at that point.” As such, the officers should have sought clarification, rather than continuing to question and then take a subsequent break. Similarly, they did not honor his right to be “free from interrogation” before additional questioning under the Mosely factors used to make this determination. Thus, they did not honor the defendant’s right to remain silent and it was not a harmless error.

Next, the Court examined the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor introduced character evidence and evidence of prior bad acts, which was unfairly prejudicial. Evidence of bad acts is not admissible to show a propensity for the crime charged or bad character, but may be introduced for some other reason, such as “to show a common scheme, pattern of operation, absence of accident or mistake, identity, intent, or motive [or state of mind].” Here, there were three separate instances of prior bad acts admitted by the superior court: (1) a prior forklift incident with the victim; (2) a prior forklift incident with another individual; and (3) comments made by the defendant about Haitian women. The Court held that the bad acts were admissible because the evidence provided a clearer picture to the jury concerning the relationship between the defendant and the victim, the defendant’s state of mind, motive, and intent.

The Court then looked to the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor’s closing statments were prejudicial. The Court held that the prosecutor’s closing arguments were improper for two essential reasons: (1) the statements used to illustrate the defendant’s state of mind were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights and (2) the use of propensity-based argument. First, the prosecutor improperly referenced statements made by the defendant after he invoked his right to remain silent. Second, admitting the prior bad acts into evidence was not an abuse of discretion since it was only admitted for a limited purpose. The prosecutor’s propensity-based use of the prior bad acts at trial was improper.

Lastly, the Court examined the defendant’s argument that the judge’s jury instructions on malice, mental impairment, and voluntariness were in error. First, the Court held that the Commonwealth possessed the burden to prove malice, not the “intent to commit first degree murder by deliberate premeditation or extreme atrocity or cruelty.” Second, the judge’s instruction did not allow the jury to consider the defendant’s possible mental impairment. Finally, the judge’s instructions allowed the jury to consider exculpatory statements, which have not been used previously in jury instructions. Here, the Court held that in such cases where the defendant’s mental impairment is important to the case, there is a risk that a jury could misuse exculpatory statements to determine mental incapacity. Ultimately, the jury instructions were in error.

V. Conclusion

For the aforementioned reasons, the SJC reversed the defendant’s first-degree murder conviction.

Contributing Editor: Kristy Wilson

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