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Commonwealth v. Rivera

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

May 14, 2019


          Heard: January 11, 2019.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on February 18, 2015.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by James F. Lang, J., and the case was tried before Richard E. Welch, III, J.

          Elizabeth Caddick for the defendant.

          Kenneth E. Steinfield, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          LENK, J.

         On the evening of February 15, 2015, Omar Mendez confirmed his intention to end a long-term relationship with the defendant, and began packing his bags to leave. Following a heated argument between the two men, the defendant stabbed Mendez to death in the bedroom of their apartment, before attempting to end his own life. The defendant argued at trial that he should be convicted of voluntary manslaughter due to mitigating circumstances, such as heat of passion. A Superior Court jury, however, returned a verdict of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. In this direct appeal, he argues that the statements he made to police while in the hospital should have been suppressed, given his compromised medical and emotional state at the time. The defendant also maintains that the court should reduce the verdict to murder in the second degree, pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E, in light of certain evidentiary issues, prosecutorial error in closing, and the spontaneity of the stabbing, and because the evidence of premeditation at trial was so tainted that it created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. We discern no error warranting a new trial and no reason to exercise our extraordinary authority to afford relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We accordingly affirm the conviction.

         1. Background.

         The jury could have found the following. The defendant and the victim had been in a romantic relationship for approximately twenty-two years. They lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in Lawrence. In February of 2015, however, the relationship between the two men had become strained, and the victim had been considering ending their relationship.

         The victim's niece, Bianca Mendez, [1] and her mother, Maria Valentin, maintained a close relationship with both the victim and the defendant. One day in early February, the defendant telephoned Valentin while she was at work. He asked whether she had seen a post on social media by the victim in which he had described breaking up with the defendant. Valentin had not. The defendant then asked her whether she would be willing to speak with the victim in an attempt to convince him to change his mind about ending his relationship with the defendant. Valentin agreed to do so.

         Shortly thereafter, the defendant and the victim went to Valentin's house in Pennsylvania for a weekend visit; they, along with Bianca, were to attend a baby shower for another relative in New York the following day. During the course of the trip, there was significant tension between the defendant and the victim. At one point, the defendant asked Valentin whether she had had a chance to speak with the victim about his decision to end his relationship with the defendant. She told the defendant that she had tried, but to no avail; the victim apparently had "made up his mind about moving on." The defendant also asked Bianca whether she would attempt to speak to the victim on his behalf, but she replied that she did not want to get involved.

         The following week, Valentin and Bianca, along with Bianca's one year old daughter, drove to Lawrence to visit the victim and the defendant at their apartment for a long weekend. The group went out to eat, went to a mall, and socialized together for several days. Bianca and Valentin, however, again felt some discomfort due to evident tension between the victim and the defendant.

         During the course of the visit, the defendant told Valentin that he was upset because the victim had obtained a new cellular telephone plan at the mall, to replace the plan that he and the defendant had shared. The victim told Valentin that he was waiting for the defendant to receive government benefits[2] before the two of them decided who would move out of their shared apartment.

         On February 15, 2015, at approximately 4:30 P..M., the victim, Valentin, and Bianca were watching a movie in the living room; the defendant was alone in the bedroom. The victim told Bianca that he was pursuing a new relationship with someone he had met on a social media site; he also showed her a photograph of flowers that he had sent the man for Valentine's Day.

         During the movie, the victim received a telephone call. He left the apartment through the rear kitchen door, which opened onto a stairwell; the victim then continued the conversation on the basement stairs. The defendant, who had overheard the victim speaking on the telephone, emerged from the bedroom. He asked Bianca and Valentin if the victim was "on the phone again," and whether he was speaking to "that motherfucker." They told him that they did not know who had called the victim. The defendant then followed the victim to the basement stairs.

         After a few minutes, the defendant and the victim returned upstairs, shouting at one another.[3] The victim said that he did not want to argue in front of his family, and retreated into the bedroom to charge his telephone; the defendant followed. At some point while the two were in the bedroom, the victim began packing a suitcase.

         As the defendant and the victim were arguing in the bedroom, Bianca and Valentin decided that they should leave, and they began to gather their belongings. The defendant walked past them and into the kitchen, where he remained for approximately ninety seconds. He retrieved a knife from the kitchen sink, returned to the bedroom, and closed the door behind him. Bianca and Valentin did not see that the defendant was carrying a large butcher's knife as he walked past them.[4]

         Seconds later, the women heard the victim yelling Valentin's name and pleading for the defendant to "stop." Valentin opened the bedroom door and saw the defendant on top of the victim. The defendant said, "I told you I was going to kill you," as he repeatedly stabbed the victim.[5] Valentin jumped on the defendant's back in an effort to stop him, and she pleaded with him as well. The defendant pushed Valentin off of him, and she fell to the floor. She yelled at Bianca to call 911 and to get out of the apartment with the baby.[6] Valentin then backed out of the bedroom and, along with Bianca and the baby, fled up the back stairs to a neighboring apartment, where they waited for police.

         A responding officer arrived within minutes of the 911 call, and another officer joined him shortly thereafter. They entered the apartment and found the victim lying face down in a pool of blood. He had suffered thirteen stab wounds: one to the head, six to the chest, and six to his arms, forearms, and hands.[7] The defendant was lying next to the victim, and appeared to have life-threatening injuries as well, which officers later learned had been self-inflicted; the defendant had multiple stab wounds in the chest and had sliced open his wrist. A large knife was lying on the floor nearby. The officers secured the knife and handcuffed the defendant; they then began administering first aid until paramedics could reach the scene.

         When paramedics arrived, they promptly determined that any attempts to revive the victim would be futile, and focused their efforts on the defendant. After providing emergency treatment at the scene, they transported the defendant by ambulance to a hospital. In the ambulance, the defendant was conscious and responsive to questions from one of the paramedics, who was assessing what had happened. The defendant told the paramedic that he and the victim had been in a relationship for twenty-two years, and that the defendant had stabbed the victim because he had broken up with the defendant.

         After arriving at one hospital, the defendant was then transported to another hospital by ambulance. One of the investigating officers rode in the ambulance with the defendant, while another followed the ambulance to the hospital. The officers provided the defendant with Miranda warnings twice during this period: once in the ambulance, and again while at the hospital.[8] After waiving the Miranda rights, the defendant agreed to speak with the two officers.[9] He told them that he had become emotional when he heard the victim speaking to his new boyfriend on the telephone; he then took a knife from the kitchen and tried to reason with the victim, but ultimately "lost it" and "blacked out."[10] The defendant also explained to the officers that he suffered from depression and anxiety, took medication for ...

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