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Commonwealth v. Amaral

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Bristol

June 26, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JEREMY AMARAL.

          Heard: April 5, 2019.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on May 2 and June 27, 2013.

         A pretrial motion to suppress evidence was heard by Renee P. Dupuis, J; the cases were tried before Gary A. Nickerson, J., and a motion for a new trial, filed on December 29, 2017, was considered by him.

          Susan J. Baronoff for the defendant.

          Erica G. Sylvia, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          BUDD, J.

         Following a jury trial, the defendant, Jeremy Amaral, was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation, extreme atrocity or cruelty, and felony-murder (with armed robbery as the predicate offense) in connection with the death of Tiffany Durfee.[1] In this consolidated appeal from his convictions and from the denial of his motion for a new trial, the defendant challenges the denial of his motion to suppress his statements to police, instructions given to the jury, and the improper exclusion of certain hearsay evidence. The defendant further argues that the judge improperly denied him an evidentiary hearing on his motion for a new trial. Alternatively, the defendant requests that we exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         We affirm the defendant's convictions and the order denying his motion for a new trial. Further, after a review of the entire record, we decline to reduce the verdict of murder in the first degree to a lesser degree of guilt or to set aside the defendant's convictions under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         Factual background.

         We summarize the facts as the jury could have found them, reserving certain details for discussion of specific issues.

         On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, the victim was found dead in her living room with her throat cut. Her two young children were found unharmed in their bedroom. A flat screen television was missing from her home.

         Based on telephone records, investigators learned that several calls were made between the victim's and the defendant's cellular telephones (cell phones) beginning at approximately 11 £.M. on March 12 and continuing into the early morning of March 13. On March 14, after learning that police were looking for him, the defendant appeared at the police station. With him was Michael Garcia, a close childhood friend. The two were interviewed separately and gave similar accounts of being at the victim's home in the early morning hours of March 13. Both told police that they took one of the victim's televisions (with her consent) to exchange it for cash and "crack" cocaine. The two claimed that after smoking the cocaine with the victim, they then invited another individual, whom we shall call David, to the apartment to purchase the victim's second television. The defendant and Garcia told police that they left David alone with the victim and implicated David in the victim's death.

         After confirming that David had an alibi, investigators spoke again to the defendant, and learned that the defendant sold the victim's television to an individual named Jason McCarthy. McCarthy testified that when the defendant arrived at his home with the television, the defendant's sweatshirt was stained red. When McCarthy asked the defendant what happened, he replied, "I just murdered somebody .... No. I was painting." When police confiscated the television, it was smeared with red-brown stains that tested positive for the presence of blood.

         The defendant and Garcia subsequently were arrested and charged with misleading the police. When Garcia learned that the television was stained with blood, he admitted to police that he had lied about having been with the defendant in the victim's apartment. Rather, Garcia said that the defendant had telephoned Garcia from the victim's home at approximately 2 or 3 A.M. to ask for a ride so that the defendant could bring the television to McCarthy.

         As part of the investigation, the defendant and Garcia's hands were swabbed; the defendant's hands tested positive for the presence of blood. Investigators recovered a bloody T-shirt found in a trash can in McCarthy's yard, and a bloody sweatshirt and bloodstained shoes from a second location based on a lead from Garcia. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing of the blood stains on the clothing and shoes did not exclude the victim as the source. Tests on samples containing DNA from more than one person also did not exclude the defendant and the victim, although they did exclude Garcia, David, and McCarthy, among others. Further, the soles of the shoes were consistent with footprint impressions found in blood in the victim's apartment.

         The defendant, who testified at trial, claimed that although he was present, it was Garcia who killed the victim during an argument over cocaine. The defendant further testified that the story he told police in his first interview was made up to protect Garcia.

         Discussion.

         1. Statements made to investigators.

         The defendant claims that the motion judge erred by declining to suppress the videotaped statements he made to investigators because he was not provided with a recitation of the Miranda warnings prior to questioning and because his statements were made involuntarily. "'When reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, we accept the [motion] judge's findings of fact . . . absent clear error,' but we independently determine 'the correctness of the judge's application of constitutional principles to the facts as found.'" Commonwealth v. Molina, 467 Mass. 65, 72 (2014), quoting Commonwealth v. Tremblay, 460 Mass. 199, 205 (2011) . In light of the deference owed the judge's findings, and on our own review of the record, we affirm the order denying the defendant's motion to suppress.

         We summarize the detailed findings of fact made by the motion judge. The defendant and Garcia voluntarily appeared at the police station with Garcia at approximately 4 P..M. on March 14, 2013, to be interviewed. The two were escorted to separate interview rooms, but they could converse freely prior to the start of the interviews. The defendant also placed telephone calls before the interview began, and he telephoned his mother during a break in the questioning to make dinner plans. The defendant told investigators at the start of the interview that he had to "get straight" prior to speaking with police, which was interpreted to mean that he had ingested drugs before arriving at the station. However, he did not smell of alcohol, slur his speech, or otherwise appear to be under the influence of an intoxicating substance. He was "coherent, lucid and talkative." He "clearly manifested an understanding of the conversation" and answered questions appropriately. At some points he expressed wariness of supplying some information for fear of being labeled a "rat"; at others, he attempted to leverage his willingness to cooperate for "consideration" in connection with a pending probation matter.

         The tone of the interview was "cordial, polite, nonaggressive, and heavily influenced and controlled by the defendant." The defendant, a college graduate, had had previous experience with police prior to the interview and had waived his Miranda rights before speaking to police. Early on, investigators informed the defendant that he was not a suspect in the murder, but that they were attempting to piece together a timeline of the victim's death. The defendant was cooperative with the investigators: he voluntarily gave them his cell phone and signed a consent form to allow them to search it. He also allowed police to photograph the absence of injuries on his hands and to swab him for blood residue.

         The defendant never was told that he was in custody or that he could not leave the station. Although one of the officers conducted a quick pat-down of the defendant at one point, that officer did so only when the officers observed the defendant scratching himself, which the defendant explained as a manifestation of his heroin addiction. During two breaks, the defendant was escorted to the bathroom and outside to have a cigarette.

         After one break, the investigators told the defendant that Garcia had given them more information than the defendant had provided and suggested that he was not telling them the complete truth. It was then that the defendant indicated that David was the last person to see the victim alive. The defendant further offered to "set up a drug deal" so that investigators could investigate David. The investigators agreed and the defendant left the station to complete the controlled drug purchase with David.

         After the controlled drug purchase, the defendant accompanied police back to the station and again was seated in the meeting room, but he was not told that he could not leave the station. Shortly after 9 £.M., police held a second interview with the defendant, in which he told them that the first television had been sold to Jason McCarthy. The second interview lasted for a few minutes. Police confirmed David's alibi for the night of the murder. They also learned from McCarthy that the first television had blood on it and that McCarthy had seen the defendant with blood on him when he delivered it. After police received this information, a third interview with the defendant was conducted. At the start of that interview, the defendant invoked his right to counsel, and he was arrested.

         a. Miranda warnings.

         Miranda warnings are required only when a suspect is subject to custodial interrogation. Commonwealth v. Jung, 420 Mass. 675, 688 (1995) . The defendant bears the burden of proving that he was in custody for the purposes being entitled to a recitation of Miranda warnings prior to questioning. Commonwealth v. Girouard, 436 Mass. 657, 665 (2002) .

         An interview is custodial where "a reasonable person in the suspect's shoes would experience the environment in which the interrogation took place as coercive" (citation omitted). Commonwealthv.Cawthron, 479 Mass. 612, 617 (2018). Four factors ...


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