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Commonwealth v. Holbrook

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Plymouth

July 9, 2019


          Heard: March 8, 2019.

         Indictments found and returned in the Superior Court Department on January 29, 2007.

         The cases were tried before Richard J. Chin, J.; motions for a new trial, for postconviction discovery, and for an evidentiary hearing were heard by him; and a second motion for a new trial, filed on August 17, 2015, was also heard by him.

          Brian J. Kelly for the defendant.

          Carolyn A. Burbine, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          BUDD, J.

         The defendant, Richard Holbrook, Jr., was convicted by a jury of murder in the first degree on the theories of extreme atrocity or cruelty and felony-murder in connection with the death of Michael Auger.[1] The defendant appeals from his convictions, and from the denials of his posttrial motions for discovery, for a new trial, and for an evidentiary hearing on his first motion for a new trial. He also asks us to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce his murder conviction or to order a new trial.

         After full consideration of the record and the defendant's arguments, we affirm the defendant's convictions and decline to grant extraordinary relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E. However, for the reasons discussed infra, we reverse the order denying the defendant's motion for third-party discovery, we vacate the orders denying the defendant's motions for a new trial, and we remand for an evidentiary hearing on the defendant's bid for a new trial.

         1. Background.

         a. Facts adduced at trial.

         We summarize the facts presented at trial in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, reserving certain details for discussion of specific issues.

         On November 27, 2006, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the victim was found dead in his home, lying face down in a pool of blood. The autopsy revealed that the victim died from skull fractures and a brain laceration caused by three "chop wounds" to his head, likely from a blunt instrument with sharp edges. His pockets had been cut open, his home was partially ransacked, and his computer and "webcam" were found in the bathtub, where they had been submerged in water.[2] No murder weapon was recovered. The victim was known to carry large sums of cash on his person; no money was recovered from his person or his home during the investigation. In addition to money being missing, one of the victim's two motor vehicles, a Ford pickup truck, was unaccounted for. The police recovered fingerprints on the doorknob to the room where the victim's body was discovered, deoxyribonucleic acid on the victim's wallet, and four palm prints in the victim's vehicle.[3] A forensic examination of the computer's hard drive revealed that the computer had been shut down abruptly on November 2 6 at approximately 12:23 P.M. As discussed in more detail infra, the Commonwealth's computer expert testified that there was nothing of evidentiary value found on the hard drive.

         The defendant, who was homeless at the time of the incident, had been raking leaves at the victim's home the Friday prior to the murder. On Sunday morning, the day before the victim was discovered, an acquaintance of the victim who was at the victim's home saw a man arrive who generally matched the defendant's description.[4] This acquaintance subsequently picked the defendant out of a photographic array. The victim's mother, whose property abutted that of the victim and who had observed the defendant with the victim on the Friday prior to the murder, also reported seeing an individual matching the defendant's description[5] at the victim's home on Sunday morning. She observed the individual, wearing the same clothing combination as the defendant had worn on Friday, rummaging about in the victim's automobile and going in and out of the victim's home, but she saw no sign of the victim.

         That same Sunday, a third witness observed an individual of similar description[6] put something into the victim's truck, return to the victim's home, and then depart in the truck. Soon thereafter, a security camera recorded footage of a truck matching the description of the victim's truck in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store. The security camera footage shows an individual generally matching the defendant's description exchange a large number of coins for paper currency using a coin exchange kiosk in that store.

         The next day, the victim's truck was found in a parking lot approximately three miles from the grocery store. That same day, the defendant was observed purchasing items with a large amount of cash, and he later stayed in a motel for several nights, which was unusual for him.

         Investigators interviewed the defendant within days of the killing; the defendant maintained his innocence and claimed to have last seen the victim when he raked leaves at the victim's home on the Friday before the murder. At trial, the defendant mounted an unsuccessful third-party culprit defense, implying throughout the trial that the victim's alleged former boyfriend, Sean Meagher, was the killer.

         b. Third-party culprit evidence.

         Sean Meagher, who lived with the victim for approximately two years, [7] testified that although the two slept in the same bed, they did not have a romantic relationship. Meagher further testified that he had communicated with the victim by electronic mail (e-mail) shortly after he had moved out of the victim's home, but that he had not seen the victim since October 2006. Finally, Meagher testified that, aside from going grocery shopping, he did not leave his home at all during the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2006.

         Not presented to the jury was the fact that, during the investigation, two witnesses provided information to police that contradicted Meagher's story. Paul Williams informed investigators that he saw Meagher at the victim's home on Saturday, two days prior to the victim's body being discovered. In addition, Ian Anderson told police that Meagher and the victim had been involved romantically and that, on that same Saturday, the victim had mentioned to Anderson that Meagher had been sending e-mail messages to the victim "constantly" in an attempt to extort money from him.[8]

         Investigators questioned Meagher on the same day that Williams spoke to the police[9] but prior to speaking with Anderson; no one conducted a follow-up interview with Meagher based on the information those two witnesses provided. Nor did investigators seek to obtain and compare Meagher's fingerprints to the unknown prints recovered from the victim's wallet and from the doorknob to the room where the victim's body was discovered.

         With regard to data recovered from the victim's computer, the Commonwealth represented to the court, the defendant, and the jury that there was nothing of evidentiary value found on the hard drive. However, the defendant subsequently learned through posttrial discovery that the hard drive contained outgoing e-mail messages dated between September 2005 and July 2006 that were sent from the victim to Meagher or that referenced Meagher. In them, the victim wrote that he was "going crazy thinking of [Meagher]" and that he "just want[ed] the past back." The victim further wrote, "it[']s about forgiveness and forgetting, the past is still with us, if you want to face it and come back we can get through it." These e-mail messages contradicted Meagher's testimony that he and the victim had a "friendly" relationship and that he and the victim were not romantically involved.

         c. Postconviction proceedings.

         Following his convictions, and after obtaining new counsel, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial predicated upon trial counsel's ineffective assistance with regard to, among other things, counsel's failure to obtain a forensic examination of the data from the hard drive of the victim's computer, and failure to request fingerprints from Meagher to compare them with unknown fingerprints recovered from the crime scene.[10]

         In support of his motion, the defendant obtained leave to have an expert examine the computer's hard drive, resulting in the recovery of the outgoing e-mail messages discussed supra. The defendant subsequently amended his motion for a new trial to reference this newly discovered evidence and to allege prosecutorial misconduct based on the Commonwealth's failure to provide the e-mail messages to the defense prior to trial as an additional ground for relief. The defendant also sought permission to request from third-party e-mail providers any additional e-mail messages from the victim's accounts sent in 2005 and 2006 either that were sent between the victim and Meagher or that referenced Meagher. This motion was denied. The judge also denied the defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing, as well as the underlying motion for a new trial. Upon obtaining different appellate counsel, the defendant filed a second motion for a new trial in which he asserted as grounds for relief additional instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, including trial counsel's failure to mount a robust third-party culprit defense and Bowden defense, among other things.[11] Commonwealth v. Bowden, 379 Mass. 472, 485-486 (1980). This motion also was denied.

         2. Issues on direct appeal.

         On direct appeal, the defendant claims that the Commonwealth committed reversible error by violating the defendant's right to confront witnesses against him, by improperly leading a witness on redirect examination, and by making an improper closing argument.[12] Upon review, we find no reversible error with regard to any of these issues.

         a. Confron ...

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