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Commonwealth v. Obi

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

September 21, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
DAISY OBI.

          Heard: January 8, 2016.

         Complaint received and sworn to in the Somerville Division of the District Court Department on August 28, 2012. The case was tried before Paul M. Yee, Jr., J., and a motion for resentencing was heard by him.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Kimberly M. Peterson for the defendant.

          Mary F.P. O'Neill, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.[1]

          LENK, J.

         The defendant, a landlord, was convicted of assault and battery after pushing a tenant who is Muslim down a flight of stairs. The defendant was sentenced to a term of incarceration of two years in a house of correction, six months to serve, with the balance suspended for a period of two years. The judge imposed two special conditions of probation during the period of suspension: that the defendant provide a written disclosure to prospective tenants that she had been convicted of assaulting a tenant and had had several harassment prevention orders issued against her; and that the defendant attend an introductory class on Islam. A single justice of the Appeals Court stayed execution of the defendant's sentence pending this appeal.

         The defendant contends that imposition of this length of a period of incarceration, and the special conditions of probation, would violate her constitutional rights under both the Federal and State Constitutions. She also asserts error in a number of the judge's rulings at trial. We conclude that the judge did not abuse his discretion in imposing the sentence of incarceration or in requiring the defendant to provide written disclosure to prospective tenants as a condition of probation. We do not address the defendant's constitutional objections to being required to attend the class on Islam as a condition of probation, which were not raised in the trial court. We further conclude that the judge's other contested rulings were not error. Accordingly, we affirm.

         1. Trial proceedings.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found, reserving certain details for later discussion. The defendant, a septuagenarian Christian minister, owns a three-family apartment building in Somerville, where she lives on the second floor. At the time of trial, the defendant had been a landlord for almost twenty years. Gilhan Suliman, a Muslim woman, leased the third-floor apartment from the defendant on a short-term basis from April 1, 2012, through August 31, 2012; she lived there with her husband and five children.

         The relationship between the defendant and Suliman soured over the course of Suliman's short tenancy. Suliman contacted the defendant multiple times to complain that there was no electricity or heat in her apartment. The defendant, for her part, complained that Suliman and her family were too noisy, and that more people were living in Suliman's apartment than were permitted under the terms of her lease, an allegation that Suliman denied. At one point, the defendant attempted to raise Suliman's rent to compensate for Suliman's purportedly excessive water usage. In addition, the defendant served Suliman with a notice to quit, asserting that the additional occupants violated the terms of Suliman's lease.[2]

         The animosity between the defendant and Suliman, however, went beyond typical landlord-tenant issues. According to Suliman, the defendant also made disparaging remarks to Suliman about her religious beliefs. One night in May, 2012, the defendant stood on the stairs outside of Suliman's apartment, screaming about "how Muslims are, they should be burned in hell, and how [the] prophet should be burned in hell." On another occasion, in June, 2012, after accusing Suliman's children of throwing trash in the street, the defendant shouted that they were "wicked kids" and "evil." She added, "[B]ecause they are Muslims . . . they will be delivered in hell." Suliman reported the latter incident to police.

         The confrontation that resulted in the defendant's conviction in this case occurred on August 28, 2012, three days before Suliman's lease was to terminate. That morning, as Suliman was walking up the stairs to the second floor of the apartment building on the way up to her third-floor apartment, the defendant accosted her. The defendant was upset because she believed that Suliman had been ringing her doorbell. According to Suliman, however, construction workers, not she, had rung the bell, in connection with work that they were doing in the neighborhood. The defendant shouted, "Get out of my house, " and pushed Suliman, who fell down approximately fifteen to twenty stairs, hitting her face on a railing. As a result of the fall, Suliman cut her lip and tore a ligament in her shoulder. Suliman immediately telephoned the police. When a police officer arrived at the scene, Suliman's lip was bleeding and she appeared to be in pain.[3] Both Suliman and her children were crying. The officer placed the defendant under arrest in connection with the incident.

         2. Procedural posture.

         The defendant was charged with one count of violating an abuse prevention order, in violation of G. L. c. 209A, § 7, and one count of assault and battery, in violation of G. L. c. 265, § 13A (a.) . After a series of pretrial hearings and a period of pretrial probation, a one-day jury trial was conducted in the District Court on April 23, 2014, on the charge of assault and battery. The Commonwealth filed a nolle prosequi with respect to the charged violation of an abuse prevention order.[4]

         The defendant's theory of the case was that Suliman was "the tenant from Hell." During her testimony, the defendant denied that she had pushed Suliman down the stairs, and maintained that she was in her apartment praying when police knocked on her door and arrested her. The defendant argued that Suliman had maneuvered to have her arrested in order to stave off being evicted for having too many people living in her apartment. In support of this view, the defendant emphasized that Suliman repeatedly had called the police to complain about the defendant, and that Suliman had filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging that the defendant had sought to evict her because of her religion. The defendant denied ever shouting at Suliman or her children, and denied that there were any issues with the hot water or electricity in Suliman's apartment.

         The jury found the defendant guilty of assault and battery. The judge requested a mental health evaluation in aid of sentencing, and ultimately sentenced the defendant on June 2, 2014. On June 3, 2014, the defendant sought postconviction relief, filing a notice of appeal and a motion to be resentenced by a different judge. After a hearing on June 10, 2014, the trial judge denied the motion for resentencing. On July 17, 2014, a single justice of the Appeals Court allowed the defendant's motion for a stay of execution of sentence, and directed the District Court to enter an order ...


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