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Commonwealth v. Lacoy

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 6, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JOHN LACOY.

          Heard: February 1, 2016.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on September 29, 2011.

         The case was tried before Raymond J. Brassard, J.

          Neil L. Fishman for the defendant.

          Matthew T. Sears, Assistant District Attorney (Ursula A. Knight, Assistant District Attorney, with him) for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Trainor, Meade, & Sullivan, JJ.

          SULLIVAN, J.

         After a jury trial, the defendant, John Lacoy, was convicted of murder in the second degree. See G. L. c. 265, § 1. On appeal, he contends that (1) the Commonwealth's exercise of two of its peremptory challenges violated art. 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution; (2) trial counsel was ineffective; (3) prior bad acts were admitted in error; and (4) the judge erred by declining to instruct the jury on sudden combat theory of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. We affirm.

         Background.

         We recite the facts as the jury could have found them, noting facts that are disputed, and reserving certain details for our analysis of the issues raised on appeal.

         The defendant and the victim, Casey Taylor, met in a homeless shelter. After the defendant found an apartment with two other men, Taylor stayed with him overnight from time to time. The landlord[1] eventually told the defendant that Taylor was not to come to the house any more. The defendant did not allow Taylor to leave the bedroom or make noise on those nights when the landlord was at home, and required Taylor to urinate in a bottle.

         Both men were alcoholics. Over the course of the two years that they knew each other, Taylor sought out the defendant after the defendant's Social Security disability check had arrived. Taylor wanted money to purchase alcohol. When the defendant received his disability check, the two men were seen on the back porch of the apartment with large bottles of vodka for days at a time. When the alcohol was gone, Taylor left.

         The defendant told friends that he was interested in Taylor sexually, even though Taylor was straight. Nine months before Taylor's death, in a recorded telephone call, the defendant told a friend that he had put pills in the victim's vodka because he wanted to "molester" him.[2] The defendant, who testified at trial, admitted that he drugged Taylor because he felt used, and that he was angry. The defendant also admitted that he sexually assaulted Taylor after Taylor drank too much and "blacked out." He tried to justify his actions by pointing to Taylor's habit of using the defendant for his money. He also said that sex was sometimes consensual.

         The defendant referred to the victim as a leech, meaning, in the defendant's words at trial, "he used me a lot" and "he wanted me for my money." At trial, the defendant admitted that he had threatened to beat up the victim, to hit him over the head with a beer bottle, and to steal his money. Several months before the murder he told one friend, "If he shows up here I'll murder him."

         On the night of July 31, 2011, the defendant and Taylor were alone in the defendant's bedroom. A neighbor overheard part of an argument coming from the bedroom, during which the defendant yelled, "I'm sick of you being a leech[.] I'm sick of supporting you[.] [L]ook at you now[.] I'm feeding you now." There was an altercation, during which the defendant stabbed Taylor in the chest with a knife, perforating his heart. Taylor cried out, "Call 9-." Instead of calling for help, the defendant dragged Taylor out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and outside the house, and left him to die underneath a latticework enclosure around the stairs that led to the back porch.

         The defendant then went back to the bedroom where the stabbing had taken place. He flipped over the bloody mattress, removed and disposed of the bloody sheets and the knife, and fled. Nine days later, Taylor's decomposing body was discovered after several complaints were lodged that a foul, "nauseating" smell was coming from somewhere near the defendant's residence.

         The cause of death was a single stab wound to the heart. At trial, the issue before the jury was whether the killing was committed with the requisite intent to sustain a charge of murder in the second degree or involuntary manslaughter, or whether the killing was done in self-defense or was accidental.

         Needing a place to go and wanting to "hide, " the defendant checked himself into Beth Israel Hospital, professing to be suicidal.[3] His stated reason for admission was that he felt depressed and drank too much, and too many people were leeching off him. Once admitted, the defendant told a nurse about the stabbing. The defendant said that he had become "annoyed" with Taylor when Taylor had asked him to buy more vodka, and that he then punched Taylor. Taylor bit the defendant's finger and punched the defendant, and the defendant then stabbed Taylor, who ran away. He told a similar story to a friend, claiming that Taylor had run away. He told another friend that he and Taylor had passed out on the beach and that Taylor may have been swept out with the tide.

         During his stay at the hospital, the defendant sent an electronic mail (e-mail) message to a friend stating "I heard they found Taylo[r's] courpse [sic][.] I'm glad[.] No[w] he will not leach [sic] off me anymore[.]" The e-mail was sent six days before Taylor's body was discovered by the police.

         The defendant lied to his friends about Taylor's whereabouts, and about how (and whether) Taylor had died, even after Taylor's body was discovered at the defendant's residence on August 9, 2011. Recorded telephone calls were introduced at trial, in which the defendant admitted to killing Taylor and said that he would "make stuff up."[4] On August 16, 2011, fifteen days after the killing, and seven days after the discovery of the body, he admitted to one friend that he had "got [Taylor] once . . . right under the heart" and "dragged him down the back stairs, threw him underneath."

         The theory of the defense was that the stabbing was either in self-defense or accidental. The defendant testified that he purchased alcohol on the day of the killing. He and Taylor drank together at the defendant's home, and then went to the beach and drank some more. Upon their return to the defendant's home, the defendant prepared chicken for the two of them. He brought the plate of chicken, together with a knife and fork, to the defendant's bedroom, where Taylor was waiting. Complaining that he wanted more "booze, " Taylor threw the plate of food across the bedroom, and then attacked the defendant with a metal box fan, hitting him in the shoulder and the side of his head. Taylor jumped on top of the defendant, tried to strangle him, and bit one of his fingers. At that point, the defendant pulled his finger from Taylor's mouth, and the knife that the defendant brought with the chicken "fell into his body accidentally." The defendant also testified that he stabbed Taylor "to get him off of me" and that he was "protecting himself from getting killed."

         Discussion.

         1. Peremptory challenges.

         The defendant contends that the judge's allowance of the Commonwealth's peremptory challenges of an African-American female juror (juror 165) and a gay African-American male juror (juror 179) denied him his right to a jury selection process free from invidious discrimination. "The use of peremptory challenges to exclude prospective jurors solely because of bias presumed to derive from their membership in discrete community groups is prohibited both by art. 12 [of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights] . . . and the equal protection clause [of the United States Constitution]." Commonwealth v. Issa, 466 Mass. 1, 8 (2013) (citations and quotation omitted). See Commonwealth v. Soares, 377 Mass. 461, 486-488, cert, denied, 444 U.S. 881 (1979); Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) (Batson). "The Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose." Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1747 (2016) (quotation omitted).

         A defendant may "object to the use of a peremptory challenge without regard to whether the defendant and the excused juror are of the same race." Sanchez v. Roden, 753 F.3d 279, 292 (1st Cir. 2014), citing United States v. Mensah, 737 F.3d 789, 797 (1st Cir. 2013), cert, denied, 134 S.Ct. 1912 (2014). See Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 402 (1991) (Powers). The defendant is entitled to a choice of jurors free of the taint of racial bias. Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 237-238 (2005). The defendant is also entitled to assert the right of each juror to sit under the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. Powers, supra at 415.

         "There is a presumption that the exercise of a peremptory challenge is proper. That presumption may be rebutted, however, if [the objecting party shows] that (1) there is pattern of excluding members of a discrete group; and (2) it is likely that individuals are being excluded solely because of their membership in this group." Commonwealth v. Benoit, 452 Mass. 212, 218 (2008) (Benoit). In addition, "[a] single peremptory challenge may be sufficient to make a prima facie showing, " where the circumstances of the challenge so indicate. Ibid. "Once an issue is raised concerning an improper use of a peremptory challenge, 'the judge must make a finding as to whether a prima facie showing of an improper use . . . has been made.'" Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 457 Mass. 461, 471 (2010) (Rodriguez), quoting from Commonwealth v. Maldonado, 439 Mass. 460, 463 (2003) (Maldonado).[5]

         If that showing is made, the burden shifts to the party making the peremptory challenge to "provide a group-neutral reason." Benoit, supra at 219 (citation omitted). The proponent of the challenge "must give a 'clear and reasonably specific' explanation of his 'legitimate reasons' for exercising the challenges." Commonwealthv. Burnett, 418 Mass. 769, 771 (1994), quoting from Batson, supra at 98 n.20. To be bona fide, reasons must be both "adequate" and "genuine." Benoit, supra at 219-220. "The judge should make 'specific findings' or provide an 'explanation' ascertainable to an appellate court concerning whether the reason for ...


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