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Commonwealth v. Coutu

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

September 15, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
DAVID COUTU.

          Heard: September 17, 2015.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on August 15, 2006. The case was tried before S. Jane Haggerty, J.

         After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court denied leave to obtain further appellate review, but remanded the case to the Appeals Court for reconsideration.

          Amy M. Belger for the defendant.

          Randall F. Maas & Bethany Stevens, Assistant District Attorneys, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Katzmann, Meade, & Rubin, JJ.

          MEADE, J.

         In Commonwealth v. Coutu, 8 8 Mass.App.Ct. 68 6 (2015) (Coutu No. 1), this court affirmed the defendant's convictions of aggravated rape, home invasion, mayhem, armed robbery, and kidnapping, and reversed his convictions of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury and attempt to burn personal property. Thereafter, the Commonwealth sought further appellate review and challenged the reversal of the defendant's conviction of attempt to burn personal property. The Supreme Judicial Court denied the application without prejudice and remanded the matter to this court.[1] Commonwealth v. Coutu, 474 Mass. 1103 (2016). On remand, we have been instructed to reconsider our reversal of that conviction (based on insufficient evidence) in light of Commonwealth v. LaBrie, 473 Mass. 757 (2016). Having done so, we now affirm the defendant's conviction of attempt to burn personal property.

         The facts of this case are set out in detail in Coutu (No. 1), supra at 687-692. In broad outline, the defendant, a stranger to the victim, broke into her apartment by tunneling through the wall of an adjacent apartment with a crowbar, and then beat and raped the victim with the crowbar before setting fire to a box of items. Relative to the attempted arson, we recited the following facts, which occurred after the defendant repeatedly struck the victim's head with the crowbar until she "was completely out":

"When the victim regained consciousness, she saw a pool of blood next to her and she smelled smoke. The smoke was coming from a box the defendant had stuck in a hole in the wall. She dragged the flaming box into the bathtub and retrieved a fire extinguisher from the kitchen. After reading the instructions, she was able to use it to extinguish the fire."

Id. at 689.

         At the time of the release of Coutu (No. 1), the Supreme Judicial Court's most recent cases discussing attempt under the general attempt statute, G. L. c. 274, § 6, required proof of three elements: (1) the intent to commit the substantive crime, (2) an overt act in furtherance of commission of the substantive crime, and (3) nonachievement of the substantive offense. See Commonwealth v. Bell, 455 Mass. 408, 412 (2009); Commonwealth v. Marzilli, 457 Mass. 64, 66 (2010).

         In Commonwealth v. LaBrie, 473 Mass. at 764, the court held that even though there was support in its prior cases for the proposition that the crime of attempt had three elements, the court was no longer going to follow that analysis. As a result, "nonachievement of the substantive crime" has been demoted from its erstwhile status as an element of the crime of attempt. Ibid. Instead, that language has been relegated as "a further refinement of the definition of the overt act." Ibid., quoting from Commonwealth v. Aldrich (No.1), 8 8 Mass.App.Ct. 113, 118 (2015). As the court explained, the nonachievement language reinforces the fact "that attempt is a crime separate and distinct from the substantive offense to which it is connected, one that focuses on, and punishes, acts that threaten the accomplishment of the substantive offense, not the substantive offense itself." Commonwealth v. LaBrie, supra. With that said, the court nonetheless noted that

"[t]he substantive crime is clearly both relevant and important, because what the crime of attempt aims to punish are acts that bear a proximate relation to that crime; put another way, the substantive crime helps to define and delimit what acts may have the requisite proximity. But the acts stand on their own, and whether a particular act qualifies as an overt act that, combined with proof of the requisite intent, constitutes a ...

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