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Commonwealth v. Williams

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

October 17, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
DEMERY WILLIAMS.

          Heard: November 6, 2015.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on September 26, 2011.

         The cases were tried before John J. Agostini, J.

          Kathleen M. McCarthy for the defendant.

          Katherine E. McMahon, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          LENK, J.

         The defendant was convicted as a joint venturer of murder in the first degree, armed robbery, and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon in connection with the death of William Jones in January, 2010. On direct appeal from that conviction, he argues that his motions for required findings of not guilty should have been granted, and that his case should have been dismissed on speedy trial grounds. In addition, he argues that certain evidence, including his statements to police, should not have been admitted at trial. The defendant also seeks relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E. Having reviewed the entire record, we affirm the convictions and discern no reason to exercise our authority to grant extraordinary relief.

         1. Factual background.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found, reserving certain details for later discussion. At approximately 8 A.M. on January 22, 2010, the defendant, an employee at a tomato processing plant in Hartford, Connecticut, told his supervisor that he needed to leave work in order to conduct a drug deal. The supervisor gave him permission to leave, and the defendant was picked up by Jones in a white Saturn sport utility vehicle (SUV). The pair drove to a house on Florida Street in Springfield, where Jones, a drug dealer, had been led to believe that he would buy drugs from Curtis Combs, an acquaintance of the defendant. The defendant, however, knew that Jones was going to be robbed. He went into the house to introduce Jones to Combs, but returned outside to serve as a lookout.

         The defendant heard "tussling" inside the house as well as a "zzzt, zzzt" sound. Combs then brought Jones out of the house while striking him in the back of the neck with a stun gun. After Jones was placed in the back seat of the Saturn, the defendant drove the vehicle to the parking lot of a grocery store in Bloomfield, Connecticut. The defendant left Jones in the Saturn, and was driven back to his workplace in another vehicle.

         The defendant returned to work around 12:30 P..M. He told his coworkers that he had made a profit on the deal, and offered to buy them all lunch. In addition, he gave ten dollars each to his supervisor and to another coworker. At one point, he fanned out approximately $4, 000 to $5, 000, mostly in one hundred dollar bills. The following evening, Jones's body was found lying across the back seat of the Saturn in the grocery store parking lot. At trial, a medical examiner testified that the cause of his death was ligature strangulation.

         The investigation of Jones's death was undertaken primarily by officers of the Bloomfield, Connecticut, police department over a two-week period in early 2010. While searching the Saturn pursuant to a warrant, police found the fingertip from a latex glove on the floor beneath the back seat. Jones's and the defendant's deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) profiles were both determined to be contributors to a DNA profile found on the glove fingertip, and to another DNA profile found on one of the headrests in the vehicle.[2] The defendant routinely wore latex gloves of the same type as part of his work at the tomato processing plant.

         Officers of the Bloomfield police department first interviewed the defendant at his workplace on January 25, 2010. Unbeknownst to the defendant, one of the interviewing officers was carrying a pen recorder that audiotaped their conversation, as permitted under Connecticut law. The defendant told police that Jones had arranged to meet with him on January 22, 2010, but did not show up. He provided the police with a written, signed statement to that effect.

         Video footage from the tomato processing plant, however, showed that the defendant was picked up from work in a white SUV, and dropped off again by a different vehicle around 12:30 P.M on the day in question. In addition, cellular site location information (CSLI) for Combs's and the defendant's cellular telephones supported an inference that, during that time period, the defendant had traveled from his workplace to Springfield to meet Combs, and that the pair had traveled back to the defendant's workplace via Bloomfield.

         On February 2, 2010, police confronted the defendant with this evidence during a second interview at the Bloomfield police station, which also was recorded without his knowledge by the same means. As it became clear to the defendant that what he was saying conflicted with evidence police already had obtained, he changed his story several times. Eventually, he explained that he had driven with Jones from his workplace to visit Combs in Springfield, on the understanding that Jones would be robbed. He described the use of the stun gun and his role as a lookout, and stated that he had driven Jones to the grocery store parking lot. He provided police with a written, signed statement summarizing that version of events as well.[3] The defendant was not arrested at that time.

         For reasons that are not clear from the record, the investigation then stalled until February, 2011, when a trooper of the Massachusetts State police was assigned to the case. The trooper interviewed several potential witnesses and obtained buccal swabs from the defendant and others that were used for additional DNA testing. In September, 2011, the Hampden County district attorney sought indictments against the defendant, and he was arraigned in Massachusetts on October 4, 2011.

         2. Procedural posture.

         On September 26, 2011, a grand jury returned four indictments, charging the defendant with murder in the first degree, G. L. c. 265, § 1; kidnapping, G. L. c. 265, § 26; armed robbery, G. L. c. 265, § 17; and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, G. L. c. 265, § 15A (b).[4]The Commonwealth proceeded on a joint venture theory of liability, with Combs as a joint venturer.[5] Prior to trial, a nolle prosequi was entered with respect to the kidnapping charge. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the remaining charges on speedy trial grounds pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 36, as amended, 422 Mass. 1503 (1996). That motion was denied, and a petit jury was convened in the Superior Court.

         At the close of the Commonwealth's case, the defendant filed a motion for a required finding of not guilty, which was denied. The defendant's theory of the case was based on the inadequacy of the investigation and on the insufficiency of the evidence; he did not introduce any evidence.

         The defendant was convicted on all charges. His conviction of murder in the first degree was based on two theories: felony-murder based on the predicate felony of armed robbery, and extreme atrocity or cruelty. Immediately after the verdict, the defendant filed a motion for a required finding of not guilty, pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 25, as amended, 420 Mass. 1502 (1995), which also was denied. This appeal followed.

         3. Discussion.

         The defendant argues that the denials of his motions for required findings and his motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds were error. He also argues that the judge erred in admitting certain evidence: the defendant's recorded statements to police and transcripts of those statements; the testimony of a substitute medical examiner; cellular telephone records; and DNA evidence taken from the latex glove fingertip. In addition, he seeks relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E. These issues are addressed in turn below.

         a. Sufficiency of the evidence.

         The defendant contends that there was insufficient evidence to convict him as a joint venturer with respect to any of the indictments. In reviewing the denial of a motion for a required finding, we consider "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt" (emphasis in original). Commonwealth v. James, 424 Mass. 770, 784 (1997), quoting Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 677 (1979). "[T]he evidence and the inferences permitted to be drawn therefrom must be 'of sufficient force to bring minds of ordinary intelligence and sagacity to the persuasion of [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt.'" Commonwealth v. Semedo, 456 Mass. 1, 8 (2010), quoting Commonwealth v. Latimore, supra.

         Because the defendant was convicted as a joint venturer, to affirm the denial of the motion for a required finding we must conclude that the evidence was "sufficient to permit a rational juror to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly participated in the commission of the crime[s] charged, with the intent required to commit the crime[s]." Commonwealth v. Zanetti, 454 Mass. 449, 468 (2009).

         i. Felony-murder.

         The defendant contends that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he was a joint venturer in an armed robbery that resulted in Jones's death.[6] To find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on a theory of felony-murder with armed robbery as the predicate felony, a rational juror must have been able to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was a joint venturer in an armed robbery and that Jones's death occurred "in the commission or attempted commission of" that robbery. See G. L. c. 265, § 1; Zanetti, supra at 468.

         To find the defendant guilty of the underlying felony of armed robbery, proof was required that at least one of the alleged coventurers was armed with a dangerous weapon; either applied actual force or violence to Jones's body, or by words or gestures put him in fear; took Jones's money or property; and did so with the intent (or sharing the intent) to steal it. See Commonwealth v. Benitez, 464 Mass. 686, 689-690 (2013), citing Commonwealth v. Rogers, 459 Mass. 249, 252 n.4, cert, denied, 132 S.Ct. 813 (2011). In the absence of proof that the defendant himself was armed with a dangerous weapon, proof that the defendant knew that Combs was so armed would satisfy the first element of armed robbery. See Benitez, supra at 689 n.4, citing Commonwealth v. Fickett, 403 Mass. 194, 196-197 (1988). In the defendant's view, there was no evidence that Jones was killed in the commission of a robbery, that the defendant knew that Combs would use a stun gun during the robbery, [7] or that anything was taken from Jones.

         We disagree. The defendant told police that he knew Combs would rob Jones, that he saw Combs repeatedly assault Jones with a stun gun, and that he drove an injured Jones to Bloomfield, Connecticut. In addition, a witness testified that on the day Jones was killed he had observed Combs and another African-American man at the house on Florida Street in Springfield, excitedly looking at something in the back seat of the Saturn. This evidence would have allowed a rational juror to conclude that Jones was killed in the commission of an armed robbery. Because Jones knew the defendant, an inference reasonably could be drawn that the defendant had an incentive to ensure that Jones would not retaliate after being robbed. Although the defendant claimed that Jones was still alive during the drive to Bloomfield, he repeatedly changed his story during his interviews with police. It would have been reasonable to infer that an incapacitated Jones was killed in Springfield in the course of the robbery, during or shortly after Combs's sustained assault with the stun gun.[8]

         Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence that the defendant knew Combs was armed with the stun gun. Cellular telephone records indicated that the defendant had been in contact with Combs on the day before and at relevant times on the day of the robbery, suggesting that he had played a significant role in planning to rob Jones. The defendant knew that Jones was a large man and that Jones intended to take part in a drug deal. A rational jury therefore reasonably could infer that the defendant and Combs planned to use a weapon to overpower Jones when he arrived in Springfield. See Commonwealthv. Housen, 458 Mass. 702, 708 (2011) (evidence sufficient to support inference that defendant knew codefendant was armed where victim was drug dealer unlikely to submit to robbery without show of superior force). Even if the defendant had been unaware in advance that Combs would be armed, however, he told police that he saw Combs using the stun gun on Jones before he drove Jones to Bloomfield. The defendant's knowledge of the use of the weapon and continued participation in the robbery thereafter ...


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