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Commonwealth v. Cartright

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

November 2, 2017


          Heard: May 5, 2017.

         Homicide. Constitutional Law, Assistance of counsel, Admissions and confessions, Voluntariness of statement, Arrest, Probable cause. Evidence, Admissions and confessions, Voluntariness of statement. Arrest. Probable Cause. Larceny. Practice, Criminal, Capital case, Assistance of counsel, Admissions and confessions, Voluntariness of statement, Arraignment.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on December 14, 2006. A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Patrick J. Riley, J.; the case was tried before Christine M. McEvoy, J., and a motion for a new trial, filed on November 29, 2013, was considered by her.

          Kevin S. Nixon for the defendant.

          Paul B. Linn, Assistant District Attorney (David J. Fredette, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

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

          LENK, J.

         On Friday, August 25, 2006, the victim, Yolande Danestoir, left her home in Chelsea to work the overnight shift as a nurse at a hospital in Cambridge. After leaving work the next morning, she was not seen again. One and one-half weeks later, on the evening of Tuesday, September 5, 2006, police found the victim's body in her apartment, hidden in a sleeping bag at the back of a closet. The defendant, the victim's son, was arrested the same evening on charges of larceny from a person for theft of the victim's cellular telephone. Slightly more than six hours after his arrest, following a police interview lasting four hours and forty-seven minutes, the defendant confessed to having killed his mother.

         The defendant's motion to suppress the statement was denied, and the statement was played in its entirety at trial. The defendant was convicted by a Superior Court jury of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. He appeals from his conviction and from the denial of his motion for a new trial. The defendant's primary argument before us is that his confession should have been suppressed. He maintains that suppression was required because the waiver of his Miranda rights was involuntary; his confession was obtained absent a valid waiver of his right to prompt arraignment, and his counsel was ineffective for not seeking suppression of the statement on that ground; he was arrested without probable cause; and his confession was coerced, and his trial counsel also was ineffective for failing to have sought suppression on this basis. The defendant also seeks relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We discern no error by the trial judge warranting reversal, and no constitutionally ineffective assistance by trial counsel. Accordingly, we affirm the convictions and the denial of the motion for a new trial. Having carefully reviewed the entire record, we decline to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to order a new trial or reduce the degree of guilt.

         1. Background.

         a. Suppression hearing.

         The key evidence at the hearing on the motion to suppress was an audio-video recording of the defendant's statement to police. In addition, there was testimony by the police officers who conducted the interview, concerning their interviewing techniques, and by other officers explaining the course of the investigation. The Commonwealth called the defendant's older brother to describe generally his family history and their joint upbringing in Haiti before coming to the United States. The defendant introduced testimony by an expert on false confessions. The parties do not dispute the facts presented during the live testimony, and agree that the judge's decision on the motion should be reviewed de novo. As the officers' testimony and the recorded statement were introduced at trial, and the defendant raises the same arguments with respect to that evidence, we reserve discussion of the question whether the denial of the motion to suppress was error for our discussion of the issues at trial.

         b. Evidence at trial.

         We summarize the facts the jury could have found, reserving certain details for later discussion. The victim owned a three-story home bordering both Chelsea and Everett. In August, 2006, she lived on the second floor with her youngest son, Noah, who was then nine years old. They shared the house with the victim's father, who was bedridden and confined to the third floor, and an unrelated family who rented the first floor apartment.

         The defendant was nineteen at the time of the victim's death. Until shortly before then, the defendant had lived with the victim in the second-floor apartment, but he had been told to leave following an argument. Subsequently, he spent much of his time living with the family downstairs; he was involved in a romantic relationship with a member of that family. His girl friend knew of the negative feelings between the defendant and his mother, and testified that the defendant had told her "a few times" that he wanted to kill his mother. When the defendant was not sleeping in the first-floor apartment, he often would hide in the crawlspace on the third floor of the house.

         The victim worked her scheduled overnight shift on the night of Friday, August 25, and Saturday, August 26, 2006. Hospital surveillance video showed her leaving the parking lot at approximately 7 A.M on August 26. She was not seen alive again.

         At some point on August 26, 2006, Noah saw the defendant cleaning the second-floor bathroom; the defendant told Noah that the cleaning solutions being used were dangerous, and to stay in his bedroom. That evening, the defendant called a movie theater and the 411 information hotline from his mother's cellular telephone. He and his girl friend went to a movie and then slept in the second-floor apartment. The girl friend was worried, as she knew that neither she nor the defendant were allowed to be on the second floor, but the defendant assured her that his mother would not enter the bedroom.

         The following day, August 27, 2006, at the urging of a member of the girl friend's family, the defendant called the Chelsea police department. He reported that his mother had not come home the previous morning, and that he was concerned that no one was available to take care of Noah and his grandfather. On the basis of this call, a Chelsea police officer and a social worker arrived to perform a well-being check. In the course of this visit, one of the officers asked the defendant for the telephone number belonging to Noah's father. Noah pointed to a cellular telephone that had been in the defendant's pocket. He said it was his "mom's, " and that the number would be stored on it. The defendant claimed that the telephone belonged to him.

         On Monday, August 28, 2006, the defendant filed a missing persons report with the Chelsea police department. Officer Joseph P. Capistran accompanied the defendant into his mother's house. Capistran noted that the closet in the victim's bedroom was padlocked. When he approached the closet and asked to look inside, the defendant appeared nervous and told him that his mother had the only key. Capistran placed his nose against the closet door and smelled nothing unusual. Elsewhere in the house, however, he noticed a strong smell of cleaning fluid.

         Police returned to the victim's apartment on Friday, September 1, 2006. The floor in the victim's bedroom smelled of cleaning fluid and appeared as if it had been recently cleaned. Near the closet, police smelled decaying flesh. When the door was forced open, police found nothing that could have caused the smell. While inside the house, Chelsea police Detective John Coen asked the defendant about any recent cleaning and about his mother's cellular telephone. The defendant explained that he had recently cleaned up after Noah's pet rabbit. When questioned about the telephone, which the defendant previously had told Coen the victim generally kept on her person, the defendant began to shake. He said that he did not have it and then said that his mother practiced voodoo.

         On Tuesday, September 5, 2006, police obtained a search warrant and searched the house. The defendant waited outside during this search. Police found the victim's cellular telephone under a couch cushion in the living room. When they entered a hallway off the kitchen, they noticed a foul odor. They opened the hallway closet and found it "full from the floor almost to the top of the door frame" with items including tables, an animal cage, boxes, and clothing. After removing the items, police discovered a human body, later confirmed to be that of the victim, wrapped in a sleeping bag.

         The defendant was subsequently arrested for larceny from a person (with reference to his mother's cellular telephone).[2] He was not told that police had found a body. The defendant entered an interview room at the Chelsea police station at approximately 11:10 P.M.[3] A few minutes later, he was joined by Sergeant Kevin Condon of the State police and Sergeant William J. Dana of the Chelsea police. Police immediately informed the defendant that they wanted to speak to him about the victim's disappearance. A short while later, Condon reminded him that while he had been arrested for larceny of the cellular telephone, police wanted to talk "about broader issues." The officers confirmed with the defendant that he wished to have the interview audio-video recorded.[4] They reviewed his Miranda rights; the defendant agreed to speak with them and executed a written waiver. Condon then asked the defendant if he wanted anything to drink. The defendant responded that he had not had anything to eat or drink all day, and Dana brought him a cup of water.

         Over the course of approximately the next two and one-half hours, the interrogating officers and the defendant held an open-ended discussion; the defendant did the majority of the talking. He said that immediately prior to the victim's disappearance, he had begun to live primarily with the family in the first-floor apartment. In response to his relationship with the family downstairs, his aunt, his mother's older sister, convinced his mother to bar him from the family home. The defendant talked at length about his hostility toward his aunt, and the strain that placed on his relationship with his mother. The defendant said that he had last seen his mother alive on Thursday, August 24, 2006, and that he had telephoned police on Sunday, August 27, 2006, when he realized that he could not care for Noah or his grandfather without her. Because she had been gone for extended periods in the past, he had not initially been concerned by her absence. The defendant told police that he had tried calling his mother a few times, but that he stopped trying to reach her when he realized that her cellular telephone was in the house.

         At approximately 1:25 A.M., police asked the defendant what he believed had happened to his mother; he replied that he did not know. Although the officers occasionally challenged certain of the defendant's statements, the interview remained nonaccusatory until around 1:45 A.M., at which time there was a ten-minute break.

         After the break, the interview took on a notably different tone. Condon told the defendant that it was "obvious to us that you were involved with your mom and her disappearance, " and said that his mother had been found dead. After reciting some of the evidence tending to inculpate the defendant, Condon noted, "there's not a question of who was involved in killing your mom." The officers then began to emphasize their certainty as to the defendant's guilt. They also proffered reasons why he might have killed the victim without being "a bad guy, " including mistake, intoxication, or the possibility that he had been provoked by mistreatment from his mother or his aunt. The officers promised to inform the prosecutor if the defendant was cooperative. The officers acknowledged at trial that they had been trained in techniques known as "maximization" -- i.e., overstating their certainty of the defendant's guilt -- and "minimization" -- i.e., diminishing the severity of the crime and implying the possibility of leniency.

         In addition to these tactics, police suggested that the defendant and his family would find peace if he told them "the truth." One of the officers said that the defendant's recent trouble sleeping, and his nightmares, stemmed from his guilt, and encouraged him to confess, to stop the guilt from "eat[ing] away" at him. They also encouraged him to confess to provide closure for his brothers. Dana told the defendant, "if you don't come forward and be a man and tell us the truth, [Noah] is going to grow up not knowing [what happened], and he's going to have nightmares, and he's going to have trouble sleeping." Dana also said that the defendant had "the power to relieve the burden" on his brothers "by getting [them] closure, so that they can get on with their lives." In addition, Dana repeatedly suggested that the victim could not "rest in peace" in the "afterlife" unless "the truth is out." ...

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