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Commonwealth v. Piantedosi

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

December 18, 2017


          Heard: October 6, 2017

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on June 7, 2012.

         The cases were tried before Diane M. Kottmyer, J.

          Robert S. Sinsheimer (Lisa A. Parlagreco also present) for the defendant.

          Emily K. Walsh, Assistant District Attorney (Nicole L. Allain, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         A jury in the Superior Court found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree in the stabbing death of his longtime girl friend, on theories of deliberate z premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.[1] At trial, the defendant conceded that he had killed the victim but asserted that he lacked criminal responsibility for her death due to his involuntary intoxication from having taken prescribed antidepressant medications. In this direct appeal from his convictions, the defendant challenges the judge's refusal to permit a defense expert to testify on direct examination to hearsay statements made by the defendant; the introduction of testimony by the Commonwealth's expert concerning what "drove" the defendant's behavior; and the judge's failure to instruct the jury that the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity would include a potential psychiatric commitment for life. In addition, the defendant asks this court to exercise its extraordinary authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the verdict to murder in the second degree. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the defendant's convictions and, after a thorough review of the entire trial record, decline to grant relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         1. Background.

         We summarize the facts that the jury could have found, reserving other details for later discussion of particular issues.

         a. Commonwealth's case.

         The victim and the defendant were involved in an eighteen-year relationship and had a daughter, Alexa, [2] who was a teenager at the time of these events. The victim had a son from another relationship, whom she and the defendant were raising as their child. The four lived as a family for approximately six years in an apartment in a three-family house then owned by the defendant's parents, and thereafter for more than ten years in a rented house in Burlington. In April, 2012, the defendant moved into his parents' house, explaining that he needed time and space away from the victim. The victim confided to a friend that she had asked the defendant to leave due to his verbal and emotional abuse.

         In the early evening of May 3, 2012, the defendant went, as scheduled, to the house in Burlington to visit Alexa. Alexa noticed that he was "kind of acting strange." The defendant agreed to buy Alexa dinner, and the victim placed an order for takeout food delivery. While the three were together in the living room, the defendant and the victim got into an argument. At trial, Alexa was not certain of the topic of the disagreement, but recalled that the defendant "started saying something and she [was] getting mad. So they were kind of like fighting back and forth." The defendant instructed Alexa to go to her room, and she did so.

         At around 6:30 £.M., Alexa used a tablet computer, which she propped up on her window sill, to "video chat" with a friend, Ethan.[3] Alexa and Ethan were able to see and hear each other using this computer program. While they were talking, Alexa thought that she heard the doorbell or a knock on the door, and stepped out of her room believing that her takeout food delivery had arrived. Ethan stayed connected to the video chat, waiting for Alexa to return.

         Alexa's parents were in the kitchen, arguing. The victim, who appeared distraught, picked up the telephone and threatened to call the police. The defendant snatched the telephone from her. He then removed a small knife from his pants pocket and put it down on a living room table. The victim seized the knife, pointed it at the defendant, and implored him to leave the house. She repeatedly said, "Get out. I'll call the cops. You're scaring me." As the victim cried, the defendant hugged Alexa and said, "I love you." Alexa replied, "Are you trying to kill her or something?"

         The defendant went into the kitchen and stood there, telling himself, aloud, that he was going to calm down. He then turned abruptly, grabbed a butcher knife from a knife block on the counter, and chased the victim. The victim ran into Alexa's room in full view of Ethan, who watched from his computer screen.

         The victim was holding the bedroom door shut when the defendant broke down the door and burst into the room. The force knocked the victim backwards onto the bed. She screamed, "No, Chris, stop. I love you." Alexa entered the room shortly thereafter and attempted to pull the defendant away from the victim by grabbing him around the neck. The defendant pushed her off.

         Through the video chat, Ethan watched the defendant shake the victim forcefully and then stab her in the chest while she was lying on the bed; Ethan screamed "Stop" into the computer microphone, but the defendant did not react. Alexa was still in the room; she told the defendant that she was calling the police, grabbed her cellular telephone, and ran from the room. Ethan heard the victim say, "Remember, " and the defendant respond, "No, you got to die. You got to die." The defendant stabbed the victim repeatedly until she fell off the bed onto the floor.

         Alexa ran out of the house, where she encountered the food delivery driver, who had just arrived. Alexa sat in the vehicle with the driver and telephoned 911. Alexa and the driver watched as the defendant walked away from the house toward his vehicle. The delivery driver described the defendant as "stone face[d]." When police arrived, within minutes of Alexa's call, they found the victim's body on the floor in the space between the edge of Alexa's bed and the wall. The victim had been stabbed more than thirty times and the kitchen knife was imbedded in her neck.

         The defendant left Burlington and eventually drove to western Massachusetts.[4] The next day, May 4, 2012, the defendant drove his automobile into the parking lot of the State police barracks in Weston. He got out of his vehicle and lay on the ground. A public works employee driving nearby and saw the defendant lying in front of his vehicle. The employee tried to rouse him but was unable to do so; the defendant remained unresponsive. The employee went into the barracks and summoned police officers to help. One of the officers, who recognized the defendant from a police bulletin and media reports, placed him under arrest. Investigators searched the defendant's vehicle and found handwritten notes on the dashboard. One note read, "Unarmed. Just have to sleep." Another portion of a note recounted the stabbing.

         b. Defendant's case.

         After the Commonwealth rested its case-in-chief, the defendant presented evidence concerning the issue of his criminal responsibility on the day of the homicide. The defendant called two witnesses: his father and Dr. Wade C. Meyers, a forensic psychiatrist. The defendant also introduced medical records from his admissions to the Lahey Clinic and Holy Family Hospital, records relating to his psychiatric treatment at the county jail and Bridgewater State Hospital, and a May 7, 2012, competency evaluation.

         The defendant's father provided background information about the defendant, including describing the defendant's "normal" relationship with the victim. The father also testified to the defendant's psychiatric hospitalization a few days before the May 3, 2012, incident. On April 29, 2012, the father visited the defendant at the Holy Family Hospital emergency room and observed that he was quiet and nontalkative. According to medical records, the defendant had been admitted to the hospital for self-inflicted injuries to his arms. He was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Prozac (to be taken in the morning) and Trazodone (to be taken before bed).

         Upon the defendant's discharge on May 2, 2012, his father picked him up from the hospital and drove him to a pharmacy to fill his prescriptions.[5] The defendant was scheduled to attend an outpatient program beginning on May 3, 2012. He spent the afternoon in his room but left to attend classes at a professional school that evening; several of the students in his class noticed that he seemed tired and unwell. The next morning, the defendant did not come downstairs from his bedroom until approximately 11:30 A.M.; he was pale and dehydrated. The defendant left the house shortly thereafter, telling his father that he was planning to pick Alexa up at school, because she had a half-day off, and take her out for ice cream.

         Meyers evaluated the defendant to determine his mental state at the time of the crime. Based on interviews with the defendant, Meyers's review of past psychiatric records, neuropsychological testing, and other information, Meyers concluded that on May 3, 2012, the defendant did not have the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and was not able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Meyers opined that the defendant suffered from involuntary intoxication from the antidepressants Prozac and Trazodone. He explained that possible side effects of those medications included "irritability, rage reactions, hostility, mania, insomnia, racing thoughts, a disinhibition of . . . behavior, impulsivity and trouble concentrating." Meyers opined further that the defendant suffered from bipolar disorder, and therefore that he was more vulnerable to the toxic effects of Prozac and Trazodone. He noted that Prozac and Trazodone contain warnings to screen for bipolar disorder because "taking those medications has a significant risk of swinging you into a manic episode." He stated that people with bipolar disorder who are treated with antidepressants generally are also treated with mood stabilizers to prevent possible manic episodes.

         In rebuttal, the Commonwealth called Dr. Alison Fife, a forensic psychiatrist. Fife also had interviewed the defendant and reviewed the relevant treatment records and police reports. She disagreed with the conclusion that the defendant was intoxicated by therapeutic doses of Prozac and Trazodone. She also did not agree with Meyers's diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Fife testified that a mental disease or defect did not "drive" the defendant to kill the victim. When asked, in her opinion, what did "drive" the ...

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