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Commonwealth v. James

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

August 1, 2017

COMMONWEALTH
v.
STEVEN JAMES.

          Heard: March 6, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on February 9, 2016.

         The case was reported by Hines, J.

          Rosemary Curran Scapicchio (Dennis M. Toomey also present) for the defendant.

          Mary E. Lee, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          HINES, J.

         The narrow question before us, here on a reservation and report from a single justice of the county court, is whether a juvenile who has been convicted of murder in the first degree, and whose conviction has been affirmed by this court after plenary review, is thereafter subject to the gatekeeper provision of G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We conclude that the gatekeeper provision applies. The case should now proceed in the county court as a gatekeeper matter.

         Background.

         The defendant, Steven James, was convicted in 1995 of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. He was sentenced to a mandatory term of life without the possibility of parole, pursuant to G. L. c. 265, § 2, as amended through St. 1982, c. 554, § 3. See Commonwealth v. James, 427 Mass. 312, 313, 318 (1998). He was seventeen years old when the killing occurred in 1994, Id. at 315, and under the law at that time was considered an adult for purposes of the criminal proceedings. See Watts v. Commonwealth, 468 Mass. 49, 50-51 (2014). On appeal, this court "reviewed the entire record and conclude[d] that relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E, [was] not warranted, " and affirmed James's conviction. James, supra at 318.

         In 2013, James filed a motion for a new trial in the Superior Court, with multiple subsequent supplements. A judge other than the trial judge, who had since retired, held a nonevidentiary hearing and denied the motion. However, because James was under the age of eighteen at the time of the killing, he was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. See Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655, 658 (2013), S.C., 471 Mass. 12 (2015) ("imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on individuals who were under the age of eighteen when they committed the crime of murder in the first degree violates the prohibition against 'cruel or unusual punishments'"). James thereafter filed an application in the county court, pursuant to the gatekeeper provision of G. L. c. 278, § 33E, seeking leave to appeal the denial of his motion for a new trial. He subsequently supplemented the petition, arguing that he is not subject to the gatekeeper provision at all, since he now has been resentenced and is no longer sentenced to the most severe sentence recognized in Massachusetts, life without parole eligibility. The single justice reserved and reported that threshold procedural question, namely, "whether the postconviction case of a defendant who was tried on an indictment for murder in the first degree and was convicted of murder in the first degree, but who was a juvenile at the time of the crime and thus subject to a lesser penalty than life without the possibility of parole, is a 'capital case' as defined in § 33E." See Mass. R. Civ. P. 64 (a), as amended, 423 Mass. 1403 (1996) .

         Discussion.

         As the single justice recognized, James was "tried on an indictment for murder in the first degree and was convicted of murder in the first degree." G. L. c. 278, § 33E. On direct appeal, this court reviewed the whole case, including both the law and the evidence, and affirmed his conviction. See Commonwealth v. Gunter, 459 Mass. 480, 485-487, cert, denied, 565 U.S. 868 (2011); James, 427 Mass. at 318. Irrespective of the subsequent resentencing, after his direct appeal concluded, James continued to stand convicted of murder in the first degree, and remained convicted of a "capital case" for purposes of the statute. See Commonwealth v. Francis, 450 Mass. 132, 137 (2007); Commonwealth v. Gilbert, 447 Mass. 161, 165 (2006). In such a case, the statute plainly and expressly prohibits a subsequent appeal from "any motion" filed in the Superior Court unless authorized by a single justice "on the ground that it presents a new and substantial question." G. L. c. 278, § 33E. See Commonwealth v. Davis, 410 Mass. 680, 683 (1991).[1]

         We recognize that, following the court's decision in Diatchenko, 466 Mass. 655, a juvenile defendant is no longer subject to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. We left open the question in Commonwealthv.Brown, 474 Mass. 576, 592 n.9 (2016), whether "a juvenile convicted of murder in the first degree is entitled to plenary review under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, and is subject to the gatekeeper provision of that statute; or whether such a defendant is not entitled to plenary review but is entitled to a right of appeal from the denial of all motions for a new trial." This case does not present an occasion to decide that question, however, because this is not James's direct appeal and the single justice did not report that ...


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