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Coggins v. Commonwealth

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

October 15, 2019

SAYYID COGGINS
v.
COMMONWEALTH.

          Jennifer H. O'Brien for the petitioner.

          Tara L. Johnston, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

         Sayyid Coggins appeals from a judgment of a single justice of this court denying his petition for relief under G. L. c. 211, § 3. Coggins has been indicted for murder in the first degree and arson in a dwelling, in connection with the death of his cousin, Justin Downey. Coggins's jury trial in the Superior Court ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked. Coggins subsequently moved to dismiss the indictments, arguing that his retrial was barred by principles of double jeopardy because the Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence at his first trial to warrant a conviction with respect to either charge. The judge who heard the motion to dismiss, who had presided at the first trial, denied the motion, and this G. L. c. 211, § 3, petition followed. We affirm.

         Facts.

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, see Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 676-677 (1979), the jury could have found the following facts. Coggins had been assisting the victim with an unlawful marijuana growing operation being conducted out of the victim's house in New Bedford. At the time of the murder in April 2014, the victim had twenty-eight marijuana plants in his home. Twenty-five of the plants belonged to the victim, three to Coggins.

         The previous month, the victim had lent Coggins $15, 000 to purchase heroin, with the understanding that Coggins would resell the heroin at a profit and return the money to the victim within three weeks. Coggins was unable to purchase the heroin, and instead gambled away most of the money. During late March and early April, the victim began asking Coggins about the money, which annoyed Coggins. A series of messages on the social networking site Facebook reflected multiple requests by the victim for information about the money. These requests came at a time when Coggins was about $80, 000 in debt and owed child support in addition to that. In contrast, the victim had recently received a total of about $115, 000 from the proceeds of the sale of his great grandparents' home, and he had offered to give Coggins up to $30, 000 if Coggins thought he could make a significant profit on it. Coggins knew that the victim had a safe in his bedroom, in which he kept large sums of money, and possessed three vehicles, including a black Dodge Challenger that the victim refused to let Coggins drive.

         At 8:30 A.M. on April 15, 2014, the victim was found murdered in his New Bedford home. Someone had intentionally set the house on fire. The victim had been badly beaten and burned, his wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape, and a rag had been stuffed down his throat. The cause of death was asphyxia due to smothering. The burns occurred after the victim's death.

         The back door to the victim's home was found ajar. The fire was started in the victim's second-floor bedroom, near where the body was found; an accelerant was used. The two bedrooms in the rear of the second floor of the house, which were equipped to grow marijuana, were undamaged by the fire. In one of the rooms, the police found eleven marijuana plants in the early stages of growth, in potting soil and black canvas sacks. Seventeen marijuana plants were missing. Also missing were an expensive watch worn by the victim every day, a safe containing $13, 000, some marijuana seeds the victim kept in one of his safes, two cellular telephones, and the keys to the Dodge Challenger.

         A home security system showed that the back door to the victim's house was opened three times between 11 P.M. and midnight on the night of the murder. A neighbor heard barking between 11 P.M. and 11:30 P.M., which was not "usual." The victim's two dogs were later found locked in the upstairs bathroom of the victim's house.

         The door was opened two more times between 1:30 A.M. and 1:54 A.M. One of the victim's telephones was used to place several calls between 1:58 A.M. and 2:39 A.M. Two of these were to the victim's mother and to the victim's close friend, Kyle Pires. The victim's mother only heard a "snoring sound" on the other end of the line. Pires could not hear anything, and when he called the victim back, the call went straight to voicemail. Global positioning system evidence showed that the Dodge Challenger was in New Bedford at 2 A.M. and in Providence, Rhode Island, at 2:41 A.M. After making several stops in Rhode Island, the Challenger traveled back to Massachusetts and came to a stop at 5:09 A.M. at the location in New Bedford where it was later found by police. The back door to the victim's home was opened twice more between 5:20 A.M. and 5:40 A.M., before finally being opened by a firefighter at 8:29 A.M.

         In the months leading up to the murder, Coggins had been involved in another marijuana-growing operation at the Providence, Rhode Island, home of Brenda House, the mother of Coggins's longtime friend, William House.[1] The night before the murder, Coggins told William that he wanted to move "his half" of the marijuana plants out of the victim's house. Then, on the night of the murder, Coggins showed up at William's house in Providence alone, driving the victim's Dodge Challenger. Coggins was looking for a water pump to feed marijuana plants; William told him it was at William's mother's house. Coggins stopped by Brenda's house in the early morning hours of April 15 while she was asleep; she did not let him in. He showed up at her door again some time later with a small marijuana plant in a sack matching those found at the victim's house. In addition, although Coggins later told police that he only had a "dollar on [him]" the night of the murder, Coggins spent over two hours that night gambling at Twin Rivers Casino in Rhode Island and lost $300. In the days after the murder, after learning that the police had searched Brenda's house, Coggins fled to Georgia in his girlfriend's car. After he was apprehended, he lied to police about his activities on the night of the murder.

         Potting soil consistent with that used for the marijuana plants on the second floor of the victim's house was found near the back door to the victim's home and in the Dodge Challenger. Deoxyribonucleic acid testing and fingerprint analysis were performed on various areas of and artifacts from the crime scene, but none of the analysis linked Coggins to the crime.

         Discussion.

         The question for this court is "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt" (emphasis in original). Latimore, 378 Mass. at 677, quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). If not, his retrial would be barred by principles of double jeopardy. See K ...


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