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Commonwealth v. Jones

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Bristol

February 20, 2018


          Heard: November 10, 2017

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on August 17, 2006.

         A hearing on the defendant's competency to stand trial was held before D. Lloyd Macdonald, J., and the case was tried before Gary A. Nickerson, J.

          Brett J. Vottero for the defendant.

          Shoshana E. Stern, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          GAZIANO, J.

         A Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty in the death of Valerie Oransky on July 22, 2006. Prior to and during trial, the defendant maintained that he was not competent to stand trial due to an organic brain injury he had suffered as an infant and a current diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. The defendant was the subject of competency hearings before five different Superior Court judges, and was found competent to stand trial at the first, third, fourth, and fifth hearings. At trial, his defense was that he was not criminally responsible.

         On appeal, the defendant argues that the judge who conducted his third competency hearing erred in finding him competent to stand trial notwithstanding testimony from both prosecution and defense experts that the defendant was not competent. He also argues that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed on a developmentally disabled individual, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of Federal and State constitutional rights. Finally, the defendant asks us to use our extraordinary power under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to order a new trial or reduce the verdict. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction and decline to exercise our authority to grant relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         1. Procedural history.

         In August, 2006, a grand jury indicted the defendant on one charge of murder in the first degree. He was arraigned in the Superior Court in September, 2006, and pleaded not guilty. In October, 2007, defense counsel filed a motion seeking an examination of the defendant for competency pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (a.) . The defendant was evaluated for competency in December, 2007, and was found competent to stand trial. In January, 2008, the defendant was committed to Bridgewater State Hospital (Bridgewater) for evaluation pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (b), after providing notice that he intended to rely on a defense of a lack of criminal responsibility. In February, Bridgewater sought an extension of the commitment, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (b). In January, 2009, shortly before the defendant's then-scheduled trial, the judge who was to have been the trial judge ordered the defendant again committed to Bridgewater for observation, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (b). Later that month, the Department of Mental Health filed a motion for an extension of the commitment. That motion was allowed. In March, 2009, following a competency hearing, a different judge found the defendant not competent to stand trial, stayed the trial, and ordered the defendant to be held in the Bristol County house of correction for a period of six months, with a status hearing to be conducted at that point. In October, 2009, the Commonwealth sought a competency evaluation, and the judge who had ordered the defendant committed in January, 2009, again ordered him committed to Bridgewater for observation. In February, 2010, after a competency hearing, that judge found the defendant competent to stand trial. In August, 2010, after a subsequent evaluation, another judge found the defendant competent. During the course of the trial in October, 2010, the trial judge (who had not previously been involved in the case) ordered the defendant evaluated for competency based on his behavior in the court room and in a holding cell in the court house. The judge then found the defendant competent. At the close of the Commonwealth's case, and again at the close of all the evidence, the defendant moved for a required finding of not guilty by reason of insanity.

         Overall, the defendant was the subject of four competency hearings prior to trial, and a fifth competency hearing during trial. He was found competent to stand trial after the first hearing, incompetent at the second hearing, and competent at the third, fourth, and fifth hearings.[1]

         The judge instructed the jury on murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty, murder in the second degree, manslaughter, and the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.[2]

         2. Trial.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found, reserving some facts for later discussion.

         a. Commonwealth's case.

         In July, 2006, the defendant was working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Dartmouth. He had been working at the restaurant for more than three years, and his performance was generally satisfactory, but he sometimes had disputes with the manager (victim) over his use of the dishwasher to wash pots and pans. The defendant was supposed to use the dishwasher for silverware, glasses, and dishes, but was to wash pots and pans by hand. The victim repeatedly told the defendant not to put the pots and pans in the dishwasher. He often would do so anyway, and undertook various methods to conceal this from the victim. The two argued about the use of the dishwasher on many occasions.

         At some point, the defendant began to express his anger about the victim's instructions on dishwashing to other employees. The defendant told one coworker, "I'm going to kill that f'ing B." Another coworker reported that, at least once a week, the defendant made gestures such as holding up his middle finger behind the victim's back. Another coworker said that the defendant would "have a bung[e]e cord in his hand and he would snap it like he was going to choke [the victim] with it." Approximately two weeks before the stabbing, the defendant told one of his coworkers that he was going to take the victim to the bathroom early in the morning before the restaurant got busy and stab or strangle her. Several of the restaurant employees reported this statement to the victim, but she interpreted it as a joke.

         On July 22, 2006, the defendant arrived at work earlier than he did ordinarily. He told the victim that something was wrong with one of the toilets, and they walked toward the women's restroom. Shortly thereafter, the defendant left the restroom and told a coworker that she should telephone 911 because someone had come through the back door with a knife and had stabbed the victim. By the time paramedics arrived, the victim was not breathing. She had been stabbed multiple times, strangled, and beaten. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was multiple stab wounds, with injury to the aorta, lung, and kidney, and blunt trauma with brain contusions. A knife, a bungee cord, and a pipe from the dishwasher were found in the bathroom stall where the victim's body was found. A membership card for a wholesale club with the name of someone who did not work for the restaurant also was found on the floor near the victim.

         While many of the defendant's coworkers were visibly upset at news of what had happened to the victim, the defendant was described as being calm. One of his coworkers noticed that he had blood spots on his face and glasses and was hiding his left hand. The defendant told some coworkers and the investigating officers that the perpetrator was a black man wearing a white shirt, black pants, a dark hooded sweatshirt, white sneakers, leather gloves, and a black mask. He said that the man had come through the back door with a knife and initially tried to stab him, before stabbing the victim and running out the back door. Some of the defendant's coworkers immediately left the restaurant to look for the perpetrator; they were unable to find anyone matching the defendant's description. A police officer with a canine trained to track scents also was unable to locate the suspect the defendant had described.

         Several restaurant employees had seen the defendant heading toward the bathroom with the victim, and the investigation almost immediately focused on the defendant. Dartmouth police officers brought the defendant to the police station on the day of the stabbing and interviewed him for a number of hours. The defendant initially told police the same thing he had said at the scene, that an unknown man had burst in through the back door and stabbed the victim. The defendant had visible cuts on one hand and on his left side, which he said he had sustained when he attempted to defend himself from the victim's assailant. Ultimately, after what the investigating officer described as "confrontational" questioning, the defendant told police that he had stabbed the victim; it was a "mistake, " but he did not know "what else ... he [was] going to do" because she kept "nagging" him.

         Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) tests on the blood found on the defendant's glasses, socks, and watch matched the victim. The defendant was a potential contributor to blood found on the knife, a handicapped stall in the women's bathroom that had its own sink, and the wholesale club card.

         b. Defendant's case.

         After the Commonwealth rested its case-in-chief, Dr. Ronald Ebert, a forensic psychologist, testified as to the defendant's lack of criminal responsibility on the day of the homicide. The defendant's father also testified to the defendant's medical history, his developmental issues, and his attendance at special education courses throughout his schooling.

         The father provided background information on the defendant's mother's medical condition during pregnancy (a uterine infection), the defendant's hospitalization and coma as a result of spinal meningitis when he was six months old, and the first signs of the defendant's developmental deficits, when he was approximately two and one-half years old. The father described the defendant as testing above age level for certain skills and "well behind" for others. Although he was placed in a special needs program, his ability to communicate verbally with others was "minuscule" and he was resistant to change. The defendant's seizure disorder first became ...

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