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Commonwealth v. Williams

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

April 9, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
STANLEY WILLIAMS.

          Heard: December 3, 2018.

          Evidence, Scientific test, Relevancy and materiality, Self-defense. Self-Defense. Practice, Criminal, Postconviction relief. Statute, Construction. Homicide.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on April 16, 2004. A postconviction motion for forensic testing, filed on April 10, 2018, was considered by Constance M. Sweeney, J.

          Merritt Schnipper for the defendant.

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

          Lisa M. Kavanaugh, Committee for Public Counsel Services, Stephanie Roberts Hartung, Isaac N. Saidel-Goley, Sarah L. Rosenbluth, Sara J. van Vliet, & Sharon L. Beckman, for New England Innocence Project & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

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

          BUDD, J.

         Enacted in 2012, see St. 2012, c. 38, G. L. c. 278A (chapter 278A) allows those who have been convicted but assert factual innocence to have access to forensic and scientific testing of evidence and biological material that has the potential to prove their innocence. G. L. c. 278A, § 2. Here, we address whether the defendant, who claims that no crime occurred, may make a prima facie case for a chapter 278A request, which, as relevant here, includes (1) asserting factual innocence, and (2) providing information demonstrating that the testing has the potential to result in evidence that is material to his identity as the perpetrator of the crime in the underlying case. G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (b) (4), (d). For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that he may.[1]

         Statutory framework.

         As an initial matter, only a defendant who "asserts factual innocence of the crime for which [he or she] has been convicted" is eligible to request postconviction forensic testing pursuant to chapter 278A. G. L. c. 278A, § 2. Those eligible to request such testing must satisfy the statutory requirements set forth in chapter 278A, which consist of two procedural stages: a motion stage and, if the motion is allowed, a hearing stage. Commonwealth v. Wade, 467 Mass. 496, 501 (2014) (Wade II), S.C., 475 Mass. 54 (2016).

         First, pursuant to § 3, the individual seeking the analysis must present by way of motion "information demonstrating that the analysis has the potential to result in evidence that is material to the moving party's identification as the perpetrator of the crime in the underlying case," among other things.[2] G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (b) (4). In addition, the movant must include an affidavit "stating that [he or she] is factually innocent of the offense of conviction and that the requested forensic or scientific analysis will support the claim of innocence." G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (d). If it chooses, the Commonwealth may provide a response "to assist the court" in determining whether the defendant's motion meets the preliminary statutory requirements. G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (e) . However, the motion stage is "essentially nonadversarial." Wade II, 467 Mass. at 503.

         If the court finds that the preliminary requirements at the motion stage have been satisfied and allows the motion, the parties proceed to the next step in the process, in which the Commonwealth must file a response that "include[s] any specific legal or factual objections that [it] has to the requested analysis." G. L. c. 278A, § 4 (c) . The court then will hold an evidentiary hearing. G. L. c. 278A, § 6. At the hearing, the movant must establish by a preponderance of the evidence each of the factors enumerated in G. L. c. 278A, § 7 (b), including that "the requested analysis has the potential to result in evidence that is material to [his or her] identification as the perpetrator of the crime."[3] See G. L. c. 278A, §§ 3 (e), 6, 7 (b) (4). If such a showing is made, the court shall allow the requested forensic or scientific analysis, the results of which may be used to support a motion for a new trial. See G. L. c. 278A, § 7 (b); Wade II, 467 Mass. at 505.

         Here, we are concerned with whether a defendant who alleges lawful self-defense (1) is eligible to move for chapter 278A testing in the first instance by asserting factual innocence as required by G. L. c. 278A, § 2; and (2) is able to provide "information demonstrating that the analysis has the potential to result in evidence that is material to [his or her] identification as the perpetrator of the crime in the underlying case" as required by G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (b) (4).

         Background and prior proceedings.

         In 2004, the defendant was indicted for murder and unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition. One year later, the defendant pleaded guilty to the lesser included offense of manslaughter, as well as the associated weapons charges, and received a sentence of from eighteen to twenty years in State prison.[4]

         At the change of plea hearing, the Commonwealth presented the following facts. The defendant and the victim approached one another and engaged in a loud verbal argument, and then a physical altercation ensued. A witness observed the victim appear to reach for his waistband. The defendant then took a firearm and shot the victim, causing the victim to fall to the ground. The defendant shot again. He ran away for a short period of time, but he returned, fired again, and then fled.

         Although the defendant agreed to the Commonwealth's recitation of the facts during his change of plea colloquy, he now disputes those facts and asserts his innocence, claiming that he acted in self-defense. He alleged in the affidavit accompanying his chapter 278A motion that he grabbed the victim's wrist when the victim pulled out a gun, and pushed against the victim, at which time he heard two gunshots in close succession. The defendant further alleged that he did not take the gun with him when he fled, and that he did not return to shoot the victim again.[5]

         The defendant filed two chapter 278A motions in 2013 and 2016; both were denied.[6] In 2018, the defendant filed his third chapter 278A motion, requesting that clothing recovered from the victim be tested for traces of gunshot residue and that shell casings recovered at the crime scene be tested for fingerprints. The defendant claimed that forensic testing of this evidence would show that the weapon belonged to the victim and that the defendant shot the victim in self-defense.

         The Commonwealth filed a response asserting that the defendant was not eligible to request relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278A, § 2, and that the requested analysis did not meet the requirement of G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (b) (4). In a margin endorsement, the motion judge denied the defendant's motion "for the reasons set forth in the Commonwealth's opposition." The defendant appealed, and we granted his application for direct appellate review.

         Discussion.

         The defendant argues that the judge erred in denying his chapter 278A motion because (1) the defendant properly asserted his factual innocence and (2) the requested testing has the potential to result in evidence that is material to his identification as the perpetrator of the crime. See G. L. c. 278A, §§ 2, 3 (b) (4), (d). We review the defendant's claims on a de novo basis. See ...


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