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Commonwealth v. Lawson

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 28, 2016


         Complaint received and sworn to in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department on March 12, 2014. The case was heard by Michael J. Coyne, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Christopher DeMayo for the defendant.

          John P. Zanini, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          GANTS, C.J.

         The defendant, after being told by Boston police officers that he had an outstanding warrant, resisted arrest and assaulted the officers. At a jury-waived trial in the Boston Municipal Court, the defendant offered a defense of lack of criminal responsibility, and called a forensic psychologist who described the defendant's lengthy mental health history and opined that the defendant was not criminally responsible at the time of the offense. The Commonwealth did not present expert evidence on the issue of criminal responsibility in rebuttal but rather relied on the circumstances surrounding the offense and cross-examination of the defendant's expert to establish criminal responsibility. The judge denied the defendant's motion for required findings of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility and found the defendant guilty on all charges.

         On appeal, the defendant contends that the judge must have relied on the so-called "presumption of sanity" because, without this presumption, the evidence did not support a finding of criminal responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt. We conclude that the "presumption of sanity" is not truly a presumption but rather an inference that the defendant is probably criminally responsible because most people are criminally responsible for their acts. Where a defendant proffers a defense of lack of criminal responsibility and there is some evidence that supports it, this inference, standing alone, cannot support a finding that a defendant is criminally responsible beyond a reasonable doubt. Although the Commonwealth may not rely on "the presumption of sanity" to establish criminal responsibility, the Commonwealth need not offer expert testimony in every case and may rely instead on the circumstances of the offense and all that the defendant did and said before, during, and after the offense to prove the defendant's criminal responsibility. Applying the proper test, we hold that the evidence here was sufficient to allow a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that the defendant was criminally responsible at the time of the offenses and, therefore, affirm the convictions.


         We recite the facts that could have been found by the judge from the evidence at trial. On March 11, 2014, Boston police Officers Paul Hayward and John Mullen were on routine patrol in full uniform in downtown Boston when Officer Hayward spotted the defendant, whom the officer knew to have outstanding warrants. The officers got out of their vehicle and approached the defendant, who was walking, talking, and laughing with two other men. As the officers approached, the defendant's eyes widened, and he looked over his shoulder. When Officer Hayward blocked the defendant's path and told the defendant that the officer needed to speak with him, the defendant asked the officer to light his cigarette. The officer declined, told the defendant that he had an outstanding warrant, and asked for identification. The defendant stepped back and reached his hand down towards his pants pocket. Officer Hayward put his hand on the defendant's hand to prevent the defendant from reaching into the pocket. The defendant pushed Officer Hayward away. Officer Hayward then "took [the defendant] to the ground, " and a struggle ensued during which both officers attempted to restrain the defendant and apply handcuffs. During the struggle, Officer Mullen inadvertently placed both cuffs on the same hand of the defendant. The defendant kicked Officer Mullen in the head several times and flailed his handcuffed hand. Eventually, they were able to restrain the defendant. Officer Hayward described the defendant as being coherent but "absolutely manic" during the struggle.

         The defendant was arrested and taken to the police station, where he struggled with several other officers. Later that day, the defendant was taken to the Massachusetts General Hospital for a mental status evaluation. At the hospital, he was described as paranoid, disheveled, and having "flight of ideas." He was so agitated that he was given emergency antipsychotic medication.

         After his arrest, the defendant appeared in the Quincy Division of the District Court Department on an unrelated matter. A judge of that court ordered the defendant to be evaluated for his competency to stand trial, and the defendant was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital (Bridgewater) for that evaluation.

         At trial, in support of his defense of lack of criminal responsibility, the defendant called a forensic psychologist at Bridgewater to testify regarding the defendant's mental health history and her opinion as to his criminal responsibility on the day in question. The doctor reported that the defendant has an "extensive" mental health history, which has involved ten admissions to Bridgewater, the first in 2000. Some of those admissions were the result of civil commitments; others resulted from referrals from correctional institutions. He was civilly committed at Bridgewater at the time of trial. The defendant has received mental health diagnoses of a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified, bipolar disorder, manic episodes with psychotic features, a mood disorder not otherwise specified, and schizoaffective disorder. His current diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. In the past, he has been prescribed a combination of antipsychotic and mood-stabilizing medications. The defendant also has a history of substance abuse.

         A month before the incident, the defendant had been in custody at the Nashua Street jail, where he was taking medications prescribed to manage his mental health symptoms. But on February 21, 2014, the defendant was transferred to the Norfolk County Correctional Center, where his antipsychotic and mood-stabilizing medications were discontinued. The mood-stabilizing medication was later prescribed, but the defendant did not take it. The defendant was then transferred to the Middlesex County house of correction, where he was not prescribed any medication, and from there he apparently was released from custody. Consequently, there was no record indicating that the defendant had taken any medication from February 21 until the incident on March 11.

         The doctor testified that when the defendant discontinues medications, he decompensates quickly, and he would likely become agitated, aggressive, impulsive, paranoid, and delusional. He also would likely hear voices, exhibit poor insight, and exercise poor judgment.

         The doctor also described what the defendant had told her about the incident. He said that he was walking down the street when someone wearing a yellow suit with a reflective emblem approached him and asked, "What the fuck is your name?"[2] He thought the person could have been a street cleaner or a security guard but did not think that the person was a police officer. He ...

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