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Commonwealth v. Wright

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

March 15, 2018


          Heard: November 10, 2017.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on June 28, 2012.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Richard E. Welch, III, J., and the cases were tried before Howard J. Whitehead, J.

          David H. Mirsky (Joanne T. Petito also present) for the defendant.

          Marcia H. Slingerland, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          CYPHER, J.

         The defendant, Joseph Wright, appeals from two convictions of murder in the first degree. He urges the reversal of his convictions on four grounds. First, he contends that the pretrial motion judge erroneously denied his motion to suppress statements he made to Canadian law enforcement officers. Second, he argues that the trial judge committed a reversible error in ordering the pretrial disclosure of the defendant's mental health expert's report regarding the defendant's mental condition at the time of the crimes, which the prosecution had in its possession during its subsequent cross-examination of the defendant. Third, the defendant argues that the evidence at trial demonstrates his lack of criminal responsibility for the murders, and relatedly, that his trial counsel's failure to argue a lack of criminal responsibility defense before the jury constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel. Fourth, he argues that State police investigators failed to collect certain evidence relevant to his intoxication at the time of the crimes, thereby denying the defendant his right to a "complete defense." Having considered the defendant's arguments, and, more broadly, "the whole case on the law and the facts" pursuant to our duty under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, Commonwealth v. Howard, 469 Mass. 721, 747 (2014), we affirm the convictions.

         Factual and procedural background.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, but we reserve certain details of the facts and proceedings for discussion of the individual issues.

         The defendant does not dispute that he killed his mother, Donna Breau, and his grandmother, Melba Trahant, at their residence in Lynn on April 30, 2012. Following the killings, the defendant drove to the Canadian border at Belleville, New Brunswick, where he arrived at approximately 6 P.M. on May 1, 2012. After hesitating in responding to questions posed by a Canadian border services officer about his presence in Canada, the defendant fled across the border, and was quickly apprehended by a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted police. The defendant subsequently confessed to the murders of his mother and grandmother during an interview with two Canadian border officers. The defendant told the officers that he had slit the victims' throats and left their bodies behind a local elementary school.[1] (Unbeknownst to the Canadian officers, the victims' bodies had been found at 6:45 A.M. that day on the grounds of the elementary school; both women appeared to have suffered "pretty severe" neck wounds.)

         Custody of the defendant was transferred to United States authorities, and in June, 2012, a grand jury returned two indictments charging the defendant with murder in the first degree of his mother and grandmother. Before trial the defendant moved to suppress his statements to the Canadian authorities on the grounds that they were involuntary and that he had not been given his Miranda warnings, but his motion was denied. The defendant was then tried before a jury in the Superior Court between June 10 and 23, 2014. The prosecution proceeded under the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. The defense's theory was that, although the defendant admitted to the killings, they did not constitute murder in the first degree because the defendant had a "diminished capacity" due to drugs and alcohol, and therefore he could not have deliberately premeditated or acted with extreme atrocity or cruelty.

         The defendant took the stand as the sole defense witness.[2]Although the defense had, before trial, provided notice of the testimony of an expert psychologist who would testify as to the defendant's mental condition at the time of the killings, the defense ultimately chose not to call the expert, who had prepared a report, appeared on the witness list, and was available to testify.

         From an early age the defendant heavily abused drugs and alcohol. At ten years old he began smoking marijuana, and at thirteen he started drinking hard alcohol. At fifteen, and for approximately the next two years, the defendant was in a residential program for marijuana and alcohol abuse. His habitual drug abuse continued into adulthood, as the defendant ingested (in his words) "anything [he] was able to [stick] in [his] face, " including mushrooms, "Ecstasy, " cocaine, "crack" cocaine, and heroin. He also abused a variety of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

         At age twenty-two the defendant became unemployed and moved in with his mother in her second-floor apartment in Lynn. His grandmother, who was in her eighties and had a close relationship with the defendant, lived in the apartment on the first floor. The defendant had only intermittent contact with his mother throughout his childhood because she was in Florida and in and out of jail with her own drug problems. She eventually returned to Lynn when the defendant was sixteen or seventeen, but he avoided contact with her until he was eighteen or nineteen because "she wasn't there when [he] was a kid." Upon moving in with her, the defendant testified, "things just started getting out of hand" in terms of the pair's substance abuse, and it was "pretty much a big party." The defendant's mother gave him her prescribed Klonopin, Ativan, and Wellbutrin medications. The defendant was also regularly smoking marijuana, snorting and injecting heroin, and smoking crack cocaine.

         The defendant testified to the details of the killings. He had been abusing his mother's Klonopin virtually "nonstop" since his birthday on April 9. Also, after having a cyst removed from his forehead four or five days before April 30, the defendant began hearing a voice inside his head. On the evening of April 30, the defendant recalled going to the liquor store and purchasing two forty-ounce containers of beer, which he brought home and drank with his mother at about 6 or 7 P..M. Before leaving the apartment to purchase marijuana, the defendant ingested a "handful" of Klonopin. He brought home the marijuana and smoked it with his mother. His grandmother was downstairs in her apartment, and at some point his mother went to bed.

         While the defendant sat on a recliner in the living room of his mother's apartment, he heard a voice inside his head, and the thought of killing his mother entered his mind. He began walking to the entranceway of his mother's bedroom, and the voice he heard was telling him to kill her. He recalled being at the doorway, seeing his mother asleep on the bed, and walking away. The defendant then obtained a knife from the kitchen, went into his mother's bedroom while she slept, and slashed her throat. He did not remember if she asked for help, but did recall she told him he was "fucked" and admitted to watching her "bleed[] out" on the bed.

         At some point during the night, the defendant took the same knife he used to kill his mother and went downstairs to his grandmother's apartment, where he found her in the living room. The defendant was not hearing any voice inside his head telling him to kill his grandmother, but he thought she saw blood on him and that she was going to call the police. The defendant walked up to her from behind, put a pillow over her face, and slashed her throat. She asked the defendant why he had done that, and died in front of him.

         The defendant awoke at some point in the early morning on May 1, 2012. Not immediately recalling what had occurred, he was shocked to find blood on the kitchen floor; he walked into his mother's bedroom and found her dead with a "lot of blood, " and went downstairs and found his grandmother "dead on her couch." The defendant "freaked out" and took more drugs and alcohol. He left the bodies at a nearby elementary school and fled to Canada. Following deliberations, the jury found the defendant guilty of the murders of both victims on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, and the defendant was sentenced to consecutive life terms. Forgoing a motion for a new trial, the defendant filed a timely notice of appeal in June, 2014, and the case was entered in this court the following year.


         1. Defendant's statements to ...

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