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Commonwealth v. Salazar

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

December 14, 2018


          Heard: September 12, 2018.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on March 24, 2005.

         The case was heard by Margaret R. Hinkle, J.; and a motion for a new trial, filed on January 11, 2016, was heard by Douglas H. Wilkins, J., and a motion for reconsideration was considered by him.

          Amy M. Belger for the defendant.

          Kathryn E. Leary, Assistant District Attorney (John P. Pappas, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lowy, Budd, & Kafker, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         On the night of January 31, 2005, members of the Boston fire department in the Dorchester section of Boston responded to the sound of banging on their fire house door. Outside the station was the defendant, Manolo Salazar, covered in blood. After examining the defendant, firefighters found only a minor cut on his right hand. Police investigation revealed the source of the rest of the blood on the defendant's body: Carlos Cruz, the defendant's roommate, whom police found dead in their shared apartment.

         After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theory of deliberate premeditation.[1]He raises several arguments on appeal: (1) the judge erred in denying his motions for a required finding of not guilty on the murder charge because the evidence was insufficient to establish deliberate premeditation; (2) he should be afforded a new trial because trial counsel was ineffective in failing to introduce evidence in support of a defense based on voluntary intoxication; and (3) improper statements in the prosecutor's closing argument created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.[2] The defendant also asks us to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to either reduce his conviction to murder in the second degree or order a new trial.

         Having thoroughly reviewed the defendant's asserted errors and the record as a whole, we discern no reversible error. However, given the unique circumstances of this case, we exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the defendant's verdict to murder in the second degree.

         1. Background.

         a. Trial.

         Because the defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, we recite the facts that the jury could have found in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and reserve additional facts for later discussion.

         At approximately 8:40 P..M. on January 31, 2005, members of the Boston fire department heard banging on the door of a station in Dorchester. They found the defendant at the door. He fell down. His clothes, including the socks on his shoeless feet, were covered in blood. The lone injury firefighters discovered was a minor laceration between the defendant's right thumb and forefinger that was not bleeding heavily enough to account for all of the blood on his clothes. After an ambulance arrived, the defendant became combative and was handcuffed to a backboard by paramedics before being transported to a Boston hospital.

         Initially, the defendant told police that his last name began with a "Z" instead of an "S" and provided them with an inaccurate home address. Subsequent investigation led police to the defendant's home in Dorchester, a three-unit apartment building. On entry into the defendant's third-floor apartment, police discovered the victim lying dead on the floor between a hallway and a bedroom. A Boston Police Department detective observed a large pool of blood below the victim's body. Inside that pool of blood was a kitchen knife with a wooden handle and a serrated edge, which was "drastically" bent.

         The Commonwealth's chief medical examiner at the time of trial testified to the victim's autopsy report, which had been prepared by another medical examiner. He detailed the victim's injuries, noting that the "most lethal" wound was a cut beginning at the victim's left ear and continuing to his neck. He described the wound as a deep stab wound that injured both the victim's carotid artery and his jugular vein, causing him to bleed to death. He described eleven additional injuries; five were abrasions and six were clearly caused by a sharp object. The additional sharp object injuries included three stab wounds (one to the left arm, one to the left shoulder, and one near the left armpit that was four inches deep) and three, more shallow, incised wounds (one to the outside of the left arm, one to the left side of the chest, and one that extended from the victim's left index finger to his ring finger). The medical examiner described the injury across the victim's fingers as consistent with the victim "trying to deflect" the knife with that hand. He further opined that the victim's wounds were consistent with the knife that was found underneath him, and that the cut on the defendant's hand was consistent with the murder weapon slipping in the defendant's hand.

         Police viewed reddish-brown stains throughout the apartment that created a trail from the area of the victim's body down the hallway, through the kitchen, onto the back porch, over the third-floor railing and down to the railings on the second and first floors, through the backyard, and over a chain-link fence. That trail then led through a vacant lot and onto nearby streets, eventually leading to the fire station. Deoxyribonucleic acid testing identified the victim's blood as a possible source of many of these "reddish-brown" stains, including those on the defendant's pants and socks, one on the porch railing on the third floor, and one on a snow pile in the vacant lot.

         The defendant testified in his own defense and denied killing the victim. He testified that the victim was "almost like my brother" and that the two had spent the day of January 31 together in the apartment cooking and drinking beer. Although the defendant did not recall how many beers he consumed, his testimony suggested that he was drinking beer from at least 11:30 A.M. until approximately 4 P.M., at which point he fell asleep on the couch. The defendant testified that he was awakened by loud voices arguing in the apartment and saw two strange men inside the apartment arguing with the victim. One of the men had a knife and began stabbing the victim, causing the defendant to intervene. The defendant said that he was then beaten by the two men and fled the apartment, going directly to the fire station to find help.

         The judge denied the defendant's motions for a required finding of not guilty. At the charge conference, trial counsel requested that the judge instruct the jury on intoxication as relevant to both intent and deliberate premeditation. The judge so instructed the jury, but noted to counsel that "there is a paucity of evidence on [intoxication] and there's certainly no scientific evidence that I've seen."

         b. Motion ...

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