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Commonwealth v. Sanchez

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

April 5, 2017

COMMONWEALTH
v.
BENJAMIN SANCHEZ.

          Heard: December 9, 2016.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on August 27, 2009.

         The cases were tried before Peter A. Velis, J., and a motion for a new trial, filed on May 20, 2015, was considered by Mark D. Mason, J.

          Elaine Pourinski for the defendant.

          Bethany C. Lynch, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          GAZIANO, J.

         In the early morning hours of July 12, 2009, a Springfield fire department rescue squad responded to a house fire and found the body of the defendant's estranged wife on the living room floor. She was transported to a hospital where it was determined that she had been strangled and stabbed. At trial, the Commonwealth relied on circumstantial evidence to prove that the defendant had entered the house, assaulted the victim, and set the building on fire. A Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty, arson of a dwelling house, and violating a G. L. c. 209A abuse prevention order.

         On appeal, the defendant claims that the evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to support his convictions of murder in the first degree and arson. In addition, he raises the following claims of error: (1) expert witnesses were allowed to testify about the substance of forensic testing results obtained by other analysts, in violation of his right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) his custodial statements to police were obtained without a valid Miranda waiver and were involuntary; and (3) the motion judge abused his discretion in denying the defendant's motion for a new trial without an evidentiary hearing. The defendant also asks that we grant him a new trial or reduce the verdicts pursuant to our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We affirm the convictions and decline to reduce the degree of guilt or to order a new trial.

         1. Facts.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, see Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 676-677 (1979), reserving certain facts for our discussion of the issues raised. The defendant and the victim were married for approximately fifteen years. They had one son together. The victim also had three children prior to her marriage to the defendant.

         In October, 2008, the defendant and the victim separated, at least in part because of the defendant's drug use. The defendant moved from the house they had lived in to a mobile home park a few miles away. In March, 2009, the victim obtained an emergency abuse prevention order against the defendant, [2] and in May, 2009, she filed for divorce At the time of the victim's death, the defendant and the victim shared physical and legal custody of Angel. The victim initially had been granted sole physical custody, but the custody order was modified approximately one month before her death to provide that Angel would spend weekdays with his mother and weekends with his father.

         In June, 2009, the defendant asked to meet with the victim to discuss their relationship. She agreed to meet with the defendant on July 9, 2009, despite the abuse prevention order, so long as he brought his brother with him. The defendant assented to this condition, but he arrived alone at the meeting. He asked the victim if she were certain that she wanted to follow through with the divorce. She said that she was. The defendant also expressed a desire to move to Puerto Rico with their son. The victim told the defendant that he would have to make such a request to the court. Upon hearing this, the defendant became visibly upset, slamming the door as he left.

         On Saturday, July 11, 2009, the victim left a family gathering around 11 £.M. and was dropped off at her house. At approximately 11:20 P.M., the son called his half-sister, who lived with the victim but was staying at a friend's house that night. The defendant took the telephone from his son and asked the half-sister where she was. When she replied that she was at her friend's house, the defendant asked her "if [she] left [her] mother home alone." She answered, "No." This was a deliberate lie because she did not want the defendant to know that the victim was alone in the house.

         At 11:24 P.M., a security camera at the mobile home park where the defendant lived recorded an image of a sport utility vehicle (SUV), consistent with the defendant's Hyundai Santa Fe, being driven away. Six minutes later, at approximately 11:30 P.M., one of the victim's neighbors heard a woman scream. The scream came from the direction of the corner of the street where the victim lived. The neighbor then heard a man and a woman arguing. He looked out his window and saw a man and a woman standing at the door of the victim's house, arguing. He recognized the woman as his neighbor. The neighbor described the man as light-skinned, about five feet, eleven inches tall, and wearing a light-colored or white T-shirt and dark shorts. The video surveillance recording showed that the SUV returned to the mobile home park approximately thirty minutes later, at 12:02 A.M. on July 12, 2009.

         Also at approximately midnight on July 12, 2009, one of the victim's neighbors smelled smoke and discovered that it was coming from the victim's house. Fire fighters responded at 12:46 A.M. A rescue squad found the victim lying unconscious in the living room, in front of her bedroom door. Emergency personnel transported her to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. In addition to burns, she had multiple blunt and sharp force injuries to her head, neck, arms, right knee, chest, back, and hands. Her death was caused by a combination of sharp force injuries to her left lung, which caused it to collapse, and inhalation of soot and smoke. Hospital staff notified police after they discovered bruising and a ligature mark on the victim's neck.

         At 3 A.M. on July 12, 2009, Springfield police officers went to the defendant's trailer at the mobile home park. He accompanied them to the police station, where he gave a statement and provided a buccal swab. The officers noticed that the defendant had bruises on the back of his right hand and on his right wrist, and a wound on the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.

         The fire investigators determined that the fire had been set intentionally, and began in the victim's bedroom.[3]

         The defendant provided statements to police on July 12, 17, and 18, 2009. He said that, after his son went to bed, he drove his Hyundai Santa Fe SUV to purchase four bags of heroin and that, after returning home and injecting all four bags, he went back to purchase two additional bags. Initially, the defendant said that he had not been inside the victim's house since April. In a later statement, he said that he and the victim had been together in the victim's house at approximately 3 or 4 P..M. On July 10, 2009, the day before her death.[4]

         In the early morning hours of July 12, 2009, the front, back, and side doors of the victim's house were locked. Keys to the house were found behind it, near the front porch of a neighboring house; they were "brand new" and were found on top of leaves and sticks.

         At trial, the Commonwealth presented deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) evidence linking the defendant to the crimes. This included evidence from a red-brown stain on the neck of a white T-shirt discovered in the doorway of the victim's bedroom. That stain contained a mixture of DNA; short tandem repeat[5] (STR) testing showed that the major DNA profile matched the victim's profile, and that the defendant was a potential contributor to the minor profile. There was also another potential contributor to the mixture. Another DNA sample was obtained from underneath one of the fingernails on the victim's right hand. Y-chromosome STR (Y-STR) testing showed that a the major profile from that sample matched the Y-STR DNA profile of the defendant and his paternal relatives. A third sample from the victim's neck contained the Y-STR DNA profiles of at least three males; the defendant and his paternal relatives could not be excluded from this mixture.

         2. Discussion.

         a. Sufficiency of the evidence.

         The defendant argues that the trial judge erred in denying his motions for required findings of not guilty, because the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support his convictions of murder in the first degree and arson.

         "In reviewing the denial of a motion for a required finding of not guilty, [this court] must determine whether the evidence, including inferences that are not too remote according to the usual course of events, read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, was sufficient to satisfy a rational trier of fact of each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt" (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Zanetti, 454 Mass. 449, 454 (2009). "[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'" (citation omitted). Latimore, 378 Mass. at 677.

         Having carefully reviewed the trial record, we conclude that the evidence introduced at trial was sufficient to support the convictions of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty and arson.

         We highlight some of the salient facts recited above. The evidence indicated that the defendant had a motive for the killing. Four months before the victim's death, the victim obtained an emergency abuse prevention order against the defendant after a history of domestic violence. A few days before the victim's death, the defendant and the victim had a conversation in which the defendant became visibly "upset" and slammed a door upon hearing from the victim that she would proceed with the divorce and would contest his move to Puerto Rico with their son.

         On the night of the stabbing, the defendant asked the victim's daughter if the victim was alone in her house. Although the defendant was misinformed that she was not, the victim indeed was alone in the house at that point, for the first time since she had obtained the abuse prevention order four months earlier. Minutes after the conversation informing the defendant that the victim was at her house, while the son was asleep in the back room of the defendant's mobile home, an SUV similar to the defendant's Hyundai Santa Fe left the mobile home park. See Commonwealth v. Phoenix, 409 Mass. 408, 430 (1991). Six minutes later, a neighbor heard the victim scream, and then saw her standing at her front door arguing with a man.

         Early in the morning of July 12, 2009, police found the defendant with injuries on both hands. His left hand tested positive for the presence of blood. DNA evidence on a T-shirt found in the doorway of the victim's bedroom, and on her body, contained a mixture of DNA, including a major STR DNA profile that matched the victim's profile and a minor profile from which the defendant could not be excluded.

         The defendant made contradictory statements to police about his whereabouts on the day prior to, and the day of, the killing, that were contrary to testimony from the victim's daughter and the victim's boy friend. See Commonwealth v. Robles, 423 Mass. 62, 71 (1996) ("False statements to police may be considered as consciousness of guilt if there is other evidence tending to prove the falsity of the statements").

         Taken together, the evidence also was sufficient to support a finding of extreme atrocity or cruelty. The victim had blunt force injuries to both sides of her head, her right eye, both arms, and her right knee, and a ligature mark on her neck. She also was stabbed forty-five times, including stab wounds to her neck and through her left lung. Her arms and legs were burned, and she inhaled soot and smoke, which contributed to her death, indicating that she was alive after having been repeatedly stabbed and beaten, and while the fire burned around her. In light of this, the defendant's argument that the Commonwealth did not meet its burden of proof because the evidence was circumstantial in nature, or because there was no blood or soot in the defendant's vehicle, or on his person or clothing, on the morning after the fire, is unavailing. Viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions. See Commonwealth v. Lao, 443 Mass. 770, 779-780 (2005), S.C., 4 ...


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