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Commonwealth v. Reyes

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

September 9, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JOSHUA REYES.

          Heard May 6, 2019

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on October 24, 2011.

         The case was tried before C. Jeffrey Kinder, J.

          William S. Smith for the defendant.

          Laila Atta, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          GANTS, C.J.

         On the morning of Monday, August 8, 2011, the defendant stabbed Miguel Rodriguez twenty-eight times, killing him. The issue at trial was not whether the defendant committed the killing -- the defendant admitted to doing so in his testimony -- but whether the killing was triggered by Rodriguez's own attempt to stab the defendant. Defense counsel argued that the killing was mitigated because the defendant used excessive force in self-defense and acted in the heat of passion on reasonable provocation and in sudden combat, and therefore asked a Superior Court jury to return a verdict of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder in the first degree. The jury implicitly rejected the defendant's version of the incident and found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.

         On appeal, the defendant claims that he is entitled to a new trial because the judge erred in various evidentiary rulings, because the prosecutor made prejudicial statements in closing argument that were not supported by the evidence, and because the judge overruled the defendant's objection to instructing the jury regarding the third prong of malice. He also claims that that the jury should have been instructed that, to find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, they must find that he appreciated the consequences of his choices. In addition, he asks this court to exercise its extraordinary powers under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the verdict or to order a new trial.

         We conclude that the judge made no prejudicial error in his evidentiary rulings, that nothing in the prosecutor's closing argument created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice, that the judge's instructions regarding murder in the first degree on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty were proper, and that the jury's verdict is consonant with justice. We therefore affirm the defendant's conviction of murder in the first degree, and decline to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the verdict or to order a new trial.

         Background.

         Because the defendant claims that he acted in self-defense and that the jury's verdict of murder in the first degree is not consonant with justice, we provide a detailed summary of the evidence at trial, reserving discussion of some of the facts to the relevant claims of error.

         The defendant was born in Holyoke, and he has moved between Massachusetts and Puerto Rico several times. He most recently moved back to Holyoke from Puerto Rico on July 21, 2011, approximately three weeks before the killing. In the weeks leading up to the victim's death, the defendant resided with his uncle, Joel Montanez; Montanez's longtime girlfriend, Celia Rojas; and their children in a fifth-floor apartment in Holyoke.

         The victim resided with his sister on the fourth floor of the same apartment building. The defendant and the victim met soon after the defendant moved into the building; the defendant occasionally sold drugs to the victim, and used drugs with him. Montanez testified that he had warned the defendant about the victim, telling the defendant that the victim had a reputation for "being trouble," that he carried a gun, and that the defendant should "watch himself" when he was with the victim.

         On the Thursday before the killing, the defendant was using drugs with the victim and "Tutti," a neighbor from the third floor of their apartment building, when Tutti pulled out a gun. The victim said that that was the weapon he would use "if anything happened." At that time, the defendant did not understand the victim's statement to be a threat, because he was on friendly terms with the victim. The relationship between the defendant and the victim soured, however, after the victim lent the defendant cocaine valued at one hundred dollars on the Saturday before the killing.[1] Before dawn the next morning, at some time after 2 A.M., the victim called the defendant to ask for cocaine. The defendant testified that the victim came to his apartment door multiple times in the next several hours, repeatedly asking for drugs, which the defendant did not provide.

         Later that Sunday morning, the defendant, along with other family members, went to the defendant's grandmother's home in Holyoke. The victim came to the home and asked the defendant to return his one hundred dollars. The defendant told the victim that he would make some telephone calls to attempt to obtain the money. The victim then left, but he returned ten or fifteen minutes later and threatened to do something to the defendant if he did not get the money. The defendant told the victim that he would pay the one hundred dollars by 4 £.M.

         After the victim left, the defendant returned to Montanez's apartment. Montanez testified that the victim came by the apartment four or five times, looking to speak with the defendant. At approximately 1 £.M., according to the defendant, the victim asked again for the one hundred dollars and told the defendant that he would "blow [the defendant] up" if he did not get the money. The defendant interpreted this to mean that the victim was threatening to shoot him. At approximately 3 £.M., the defendant went to his aunt's home. While the defendant was there, the victim telephoned, said he wanted to see the defendant, and threatened to kill the defendant if he (the victim) did not get his money.

         The defendant testified that, after leaving his aunt's home at approximately 10 P..M., he went to his cousin's house to get a knife to protect himself. The defendant described the knife as an old, brown, rusty knife with a long black handle. The defendant testified that he then waited downstairs in front of his apartment building, hoping to prevent the victim from reaching his family. He said that if he saw the victim, he intended to tell the victim that he did not have the money "and whatever happened was going to happen." The defendant testified that he eventually grew tired of waiting for the victim and went upstairs to Montanez's apartment at approximately 10:30 or 11 P.M.[2]

         When the defendant came upstairs, where Montanez was playing dominoes, Montanez observed the defendant take a chrome-colored knife from his waistband and place it on his lap. Montanez noted that the knife had no guard where the handle met the blade.

         The next morning, at approximately 8:15 A.M., a witness who was driving his vehicle on the street in front of the defendant's apartment building saw two men running from the further front entrance of the apartment building toward the street.[3] One man was attempting to run away from another man, who was holding his shirt to prevent his flight. The witness stopped his vehicle to watch the encounter. He saw the man who was holding the victim's shirt spin the victim around and start "punching" the victim in the chest. The victim had his hands in the air, screaming and trying to get away; there was nothing in the victim's hands. The witness saw blood and observed the "punching" man holding a shiny object; at this time, he realized that the man was not punching the victim, but stabbing him with a knife. The victim fell to the ground, and then he got up and staggered to lean on another vehicle.[4] The man who had stabbed the victim ran into the other front entrance of the apartment building.

         That same morning, Montanez was awakened by knocking on the front door of his apartment. Rojas opened the door, and the defendant -- whose hand was bleeding -- entered. Montanez testified that he observed the defendant place a knife on top of the bathroom sink, and that this was the same knife he had seen the defendant with the previous evening. He heard the defendant ...


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