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Commonwealth v. Combs

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

July 5, 2018


          Heard: December 8, 2017.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on September 26, 2011.

         The cases were tried before Richard J. Carey, J., and a motion for a new trial, filed on August 31, 2015, was heard by him.

          Cathryn A. Neaves for the defendant.

          David L. Sheppard-Brick, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          CYPHER, J.

         In September, 2011, a Hampden County grand jury returned four indictments charging the defendant, Curtis Combs, with murder in the first degree, G. L. c. 265, § 1; kidnapping, G. L. c. 265, § 26; armed robbery, G. L. c. 265, § 17; and assault by means of a dangerous weapon, G. L. c. 265, § 15A (b), [1]The Commonwealth alleged that the defendant either was the principal or acted as part of a joint venture with Demery "Manny" Williams[2] to rob and murder William Jones. The defendant and Manny were tried separately, and we affirmed Manny's convictions of murder in the first degree, armed robbery, and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 475 Mass. 705, 706 (2016) . At the defendant's trial, the theory of defense was that he was not involved in killing the victim and had only assisted Manny in concealing the crime after the fact, by helping Manny dispose of the victim's body in Connecticut.[3] The jury ultimately convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty, as well as of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon.[4]

         The defendant appeals from the two convictions and from the denial of his motion for a new trial. He claims that (1) the evidence was insufficient to convict him of murder; (2) the jury should have been instructed on accessory after the fact, even though the defendant was not charged with being an accessory after the fact; (3) errors in the prosecutor's closing argument require a new trial; and that (4) we should exercise our power under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the verdict of murder in the first degree or grant the defendant a new trial.

         This case presents the exceedingly rare instance in which the factual question "[w]hether a criminal act occurred within the territorial boundaries of the Commonwealth, and thus whether the Commonwealth has jurisdiction over the [defendant, ]" is legitimately in dispute. Commonwealth v. Gilbert, 366 Mass. 18, 28 (1974). Throughout trial, and as part of his motion for a required finding of not guilty, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was killed in Massachusetts. The judge denied the motion, yet submitted the question of territorial jurisdiction to the jury. Upon our review of the evidence, and even after viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, we agree with the defendant that the location of the crimes -- whether they occurred in Massachusetts or Connecticut (where the victim's body was found) -- remains too speculative to sustain the jury's finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. "[T]here can be no doubt that [our courts have] no power to try the defendant for crimes committed out of State." Commonwealth v. DiMarzo, 364 Mass. 669, 671 (1974). Lacking territorial jurisdiction over the prosecution, we are required to reverse the defendant's convictions.[5]


         We recite the facts the jury could have found, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, while reserving certain details for later discussion. At approximately 10:20 A.M. on January 22, 2010, Jones, the victim, picked up Manny from his place of work in Hartford, Connecticut.[6] The victim was driving a white Saturn Outlook sport utility vehicle (SUV) that he had rented the previous day. Both men sold cocaine, and they had arranged a drug deal. The plan also involved the defendant, Curtis Combs, who Manny knew previously.[7] Despite being on probation in Connecticut, which prohibited him from leaving that State, the defendant was staying at his girl friend's apartment in Springfield. The victim and Manny drove to the Springfield apartment, arriving sometime shortly before 11 A.M.[8] The jury could reasonably infer that the victim was alive when they arrived at the Springfield apartment.[9] Around this time, Gustavo Bautista returned home to the duplex that he owned on Florida Street in Springfield. Bautista lived in the apartment located on the right side of the house, and he rented the left-side apartment to the defendant's girl friend. Immediately upon returning home, Bautista heard the adjacent door of the leftside apartment open and close. He looked out the front window and saw the defendant in the front yard, signaling to Manny to drive the SUV over the grass on the side of the house and around to the back yard.[10]

         Bautista immediately went to the back of his house to see what was happening. He witnessed Manny step out of the vehicle and show the defendant something in the back seat. Bautista could not see what it was, or whether there was anyone else in the SUV (the windows were tinted), but both men appeared "excited." Bautista saw only the defendant and Manny, and did not know whether there was anyone else inside the left-side apartment at the time. At this point Manny noticed Bautista watching, and informed the defendant. Bautista asked the defendant what was happening. The defendant, who was acting "normal," said that his friend had come to pick up old furniture. Bautista asked the men to use the driveway next time, and then left the duplex, leaving the defendant and Manny behind the home with the SUV.[11]

         After spending approximately thirty minutes alone at the apartment, at around 11:40 A.M., Manny and the defendant began driving back toward Hartford. It is not clear whether the victim was alive at this time. Manny traveled in the victim's SUV, presumably with the victim or the victim's body, while the defendant followed them in his mother's Pontiac Grand Prix automobile. Cellular telephone records show that the defendant and Manny exchanged two calls at 12:06 and 12:10 P.M., and at this time both men were located in the Bloomfield, Connecticut, area.[12]

         At some point during the period beginning when the victim arrived in Springfield, and through the time that Manny and the defendant were in Bloomfield, the victim was strangled to death with a ligature. Manny and the defendant left the victim's body in the back seat of the SUV, parked in the parking lot of a Bloomfield retail store. Manny then got into the Grand Prix, and the defendant drove him back to work in Hartford, where he arrived approximately between 12:30 and 12:45 P.M. Once back, Manny showed his boss about $4, 000 to $5, 000 in cash, and said that he had just sold a "kilo," but that the sale had taken longer than expected because he had to show the buyer "how to cook up the cocaine."

         The victim's body was discovered the following evening by members of the Bloomfield police department, lying face down across the back seat of the SUV, which was parked in the store's parking lot. Connecticut State police investigators processed the SUV for evidence; they took swabs to be used for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, and collected dirt samples, fibers, and latent prints from the interior and exterior of the vehicle. DNA matching the defendant's profile was discovered on the slide control lever of the rear driver's side seat, used to move the seat forward and backward. Investigators also found a torn piece of white latex glove on the floor that revealed a mixed sample of DNA matching the profiles of Manny and the victim. In addition, investigators located dirt and debris on the floor near the rear passenger's side door.

         The defendant gave multiple statements to police. In his first statement on February 2, 2010, the defendant denied knowing Manny or the victim, and said that he had not left Hartford because he was on probation and could not leave Connecticut. Later that evening he gave a second statement, in which he admitted that he had in fact been in Springfield. The defendant also acknowledged that he knew Manny from a Hartford barbershop. He told the police that Manny had visited him in Springfield, and had brought a friend -- an unidentified African-American male -- driving the SUV. The defendant said that he let this friend inside the apartment to use the bathroom. Then, according to the defendant, Manny and his friend got into the SUV and drove to a retail store in West Springfield. The defendant said that he followed them in the Grand Prix. According to the defendant, the three stayed at the retail store for twenty minutes, and then drove on the highway toward Hartford, stopping at two restaurants along the way. ...

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