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Commonwealth v. Felix

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

April 12, 2017


          Heard: December 19, 2016.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on September 21, 2011.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Bruce R. Henry, J.; the case was tried before Kathe M. Tuttman, J., and a motion for a new trial, filed on March 16, 2015, was heard by her.

          Leslie W. O'Brien for the defendant.

          Jane A. Sullivan, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          BOTSFORD, J.

         The defendant, Natalio Felix, appeals from his conviction of murder in the first degree and the denial of his motion for a new trial. The defendant was convicted of the murder of his wife, Janice Santos, on the theory of deliberate premeditation.

         The defendant's principal arguments on appeal concern the absence of any instruction on manslaughter; he claims that although he admittedly killed his wife, the trial evidence, and particularly his own trial testimony, entitled him to instructions on both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, and that for several reasons, the absence of these instructions constituted error requiring reversal of his conviction and a new trial. The defendant also seeks relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We affirm the defendant's conviction and the order denying his motion for a new trial, and decline to grant relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         1. Background.

         We summarize facts that the jury could have found, and reserve discussion of additional evidence in connection with the issues raised. In May of 2011, the defendant and the victim had been married for a decade or more.[2]They jointly owned a home in Worcester where they lived with their son and daughter, aged ten and eleven, and the victim's sixteen year old son from a prior relationship. The defendant and the victim both held jobs outside the home, the defendant as a truck driver and the victim at the Superior Court in Worcester County, but the defendant quit his job around this time, and the couple argued frequently, often about money. Their relationship, however, contained no history of physical violence.

         During that month, following an argument with his stepson, the defendant left the couple's home and stayed with his sister at her home in Worcester for some time and then went to the Dominican Republic. He stayed there for about one week before deciding to return home. Still in contact with the victim via text messages both while staying with his sister and during his trip to the Dominican Republic, the defendant asked her to pick him up at the airport when he returned; she refused. Nonetheless, he did return to Worcester on June 6, 2011, and stayed at his mother's house, but slept at a friend's house on June 7, the night before the homicide.

         On the night of June 7, the defendant exchanged a series of text messages with Tina Rodriguez, a mutual friend of his and the victim's. Pressing Rodriguez for the gossip she had heard about his marriage, the defendant sent a text message stating, "[The victim is] not who you think she is. She's a hypocrite, " and continued, "She's supposed to be Christian. Laugh out loud . . . . Let's see if God saves her from this one."[3] Asked to elaborate, the defendant answered only, "You will see. You know who I am." Rodriguez replied, "Remember that you have children with her. Don't do anything stupid." The defendant ended the exchange by asking that Rodriguez not tell the victim they had spoken.

         At 12:44 A.M. on June 8, the defendant sent a text message to his sister saying, "Love sis. Thanks for everything, " and another saying goodbye to his niece. He also asked his niece to "get his cell phone, " to thank his mother "for everything that she had done for him, " and to relay his message that, "if anything happens to me just let [my mother] know that I'm sorry and that I love her." Forensic analysis of the defendant's cellular telephone revealed a calendar entry for June 8, 2011, reading, "Ju[d]gment Day." There were no other calendar entries for the six-month period beginning January 1, 2011, except for one doctor's appointment on a day in March.

         The defendant arrived at his and the victim's home early on the morning of June 8, 2011. His stepson already had left for school; his son and daughter were awake and getting ready for school; the victim was in the master bedroom. Having let himself into the house using the keys he still had, the defendant spoke to no one before entering the master bedroom and locking the door behind him. The children, both outside the bedroom, heard "a weird gasp, " and "very loud thuds" coming from inside. Unable to open the bedroom door, they looked underneath the door and saw a pair of black and white pants, along with "legs and feet wiggling." The defendant's son asked through the door, "What are you doing to my mom? Come and show yourself, " and heard his father's voice respond, "It's me." His daughter also recognized the defendant's voice saying, "Be quiet" from within the room. About five minutes later, the defendant emerged from the bedroom, told his children their mother was sick, asked whether they had brushed their teeth, and drove them to school.

         The defendant then returned to his and the victim's home. According to what he told the police later that morning and told the jury at trial, when the defendant reentered the house, he did not check on the victim or go to the bedroom, but twice attempted to hang himself with a rope from the second-floor staircase. Each time, however, the rope broke, and in falling, he sustained injuries to his neck and face and lost consciousness for a period of time. When he regained consciousness, he drove the victim's automobile to his mother's house and left his house key and cellular telephone with his stepfather.

         The defendant proceeded to the Worcester police station, arriving there at approximately 9 A.M. He entered the station and reported to the officer at the front desk that he had killed his wife. He wore a black and white track suit and the victim's employment identification badge on a lanyard around his neck. Police observed that the defendant had dried blood in both nostrils, a split lip, and a ligature mark on his neck. In separate morning and afternoon interviews, the defendant spoke with police, waiving his Miranda rights each time.[4]

         As the defendant's first interview with the police was taking place, other police officers went to the defendant's home to investigate. They found the victim lying on the bed of the master bedroom; she was dead. The victim's neck showed three ligature marks, and the tissue underneath the marks showed hemorrhaging consistent with blunt trauma. Her tongue was bruised, her neck cartilage fractured, and her face spotted with petechial hemorrhages. The victim died as a result of asphyxia due to ligature strangulation, which would have required the application of sufficient pressure to her neck for three to five minutes.[5]

         In September, 2011, a Worcester County grand jury indicted the defendant for murder. Because the victim had worked in the Superior Court in Worcester County, the case was transferred by agreement of the parties to the Superior Court in Middlesex County. After an evidentiary hearing, a judge of the Superior Court denied the defendant's motion to suppress his statements to the police, and the case was tried before a second Superior Court judge in October, 2012. The jury were instructed on murder in the first degree on theories of premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty, and also murder in the second degree; the judge declined to instruct on voluntary or ...

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