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District Attorney for Northern District v. Superior Court Department

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

May 21, 2019

DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT
v.
SUPERIOR COURT DEPARTMENT.

          Heard: November 8, 2018.

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on September 6, 2017. The case was reported by Lowy, J.

          Jessica Langsam, Assistant District Attorney, for the petitioner.

          Daniel P. Sullivan, Special Assistant Attorney General, for the respondent.

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

          LOWY, J.

         This case stems from three postconviction orders, issued by three different Superior Court judges on the same preprinted form, requiring that exhibits in the clerk's office of the Superior Court in Middlesex County (clerk's office) be transferred to local police departments. The exhibits at issue are two firearms, live ammunition, a spent projectile and casing, other spent casings, a BB gun, and a baby carriage. The district attorney for the northern district petitioned a single justice of this court pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, seeking to vacate the orders and to require that all exhibits that had been transferred to police departments be returned to the clerk's office. The single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court.

         The issue before us is whether the clerk's office or the police departments are responsible for retaining the exhibits in these three separate criminal trials, each of which resulted in conviction. We conclude that the exhibit-transfer orders in two of the cases should be affirmed, and the order in the third case affirmed in part and remanded in part.

         The broader issue is how to allocate responsibility for retaining and preserving exhibits after criminal trials to maintain the integrity of those exhibits. The importance of properly storing exhibits cannot be overstated. Without exhibit preservation, innocent people convicted of crimes may linger in prison for decades because they are unable to perform forensic tests through existing or emerging technologies. And with respect to those guilty of criminal offenses whose convictions are overturned or for whom the jury were unable to reach a verdict, the loss of exhibits or the compromising of the chain of custody might prevent reprosecution.

         With the limitations discussed infra, courts, and particularly clerks' offices, have a statutory duty to secure, preserve, and retrieve exhibits admitted in criminal cases that result in conviction. Unfortunately, most of the court houses in this Commonwealth lack the facilities and trained staff to meet their statutory responsibility. Clerks' offices do the best they can with the resources and facilities provided, but what is needed is a state of the art facility staffed by trained professionals with appropriate organizational and retrieval capability and with climate control to preserve adequately forensic and scientific evidence. The need to preserve adequately these exhibits presents the three branches of government with a grave challenge that raises questions about the fair administration of justice. There is a shared responsibility among the branches of government to solve this problem. No branch is capable of solving it alone.

         Background.

         Rigoberto Escobar, Matthew Thomas, and Timothy Berry were each tried and convicted of various crimes in the Superior Court in Middlesex County.[1] In Escobar's trial, the Commonwealth introduced in evidence a .40 caliber firearm. On the same day that Escobar was found guilty, the judge signed a form order returning the firearm to the Everett police department.[2] The Commonwealth moved twice for reconsideration, asking the judge to order that the firearm be retained and stored by the clerk's office. After a hearing on each motion, the judge denied the motions in a written decision and ordered that the firearm remain at the Everett police department.

         In Thomas's trial, the Commonwealth offered in evidence a BB gun and a baby carriage. After Thomas's conviction, the clerk's office submitted to the judge a form order to transfer the BB gun and baby carriage to the Lowell police department. The Commonwealth filed a motion requesting that the judge order the clerk's office to retain the exhibits. After a hearing, the judge denied the motion in a written decision and ordered that the exhibits be returned to the Lowell police department. The judge also signed the form order. The Commonwealth then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the judge denied in an order written on the face of the motion.

         Finally, in Berry's trial, the Commonwealth offered in evidence a .45 caliber handgun, live ammunition, a spent projectile and casing, and other spent casings. The clerk's office asked the judge to sign a form order returning the exhibits to the Lowell police department, and the Commonwealth filed a motion requesting that the exhibits remain in the clerk's office. Without issuing a ...


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