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Commonwealth v. Yasin

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 16, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
ABDULLAH YASIN.

          Heard: March 5, 2019.

          Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on May 9, 2018.

         The case was reported by Kafker, J.

          Houston Armstrong, Assistant District Attorney (Tara B. Burdman, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

          James L. Sultan (Kerry A. Haberlin also present) for the respondent.

          Nancy A. Dolberg, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for Committee for Public Counsel Services, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

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

          GAZIANO, J.

         At the close of the Commonwealth's case in the defendant's trial for murder in the first degree, the defendant moved for a required finding of not guilty pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a), as amended, 420 Mass. 1502 (1995). Notwithstanding the plain language of rule 25 (a), which requires a judge to decide a motion for a required finding at the close of the Commonwealth's case "at that time," the judge reserved decision over the defendant's objection. The defendant then was required to rest or put on his case. At the close of all the evidence, the defendant again sought a motion for a required finding, and the judge submitted the case to the jury pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (b) (1), as amended, 420 Mass. 1502 (1995), also over the defendant's objection. After the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree, the defendant renewed his motion under rule 25 (a). In the alternative, he sought relief pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (b) (2), as amended, 420 Mass. 1502 (1995). At the defendant's suggestion, the judge allowed the defendant's rule 25 (a) motion, nunc pro tunc, to the close of the Commonwealth's case. The Commonwealth subsequently filed a petition for relief pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, in the county court, and the single justice reserved and reported two questions to the full court.

         We conclude that the judge erred in reserving decision on the defendant's rule 25 (a) motion filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case, and that the error violated the defendant's right to due process. In addition, the error permeated the remainder of the trial. In allowing the motion for a required finding nunc pro tunc after the jury returned their verdict, the judge abused her discretion and deprived the Commonwealth of its right to appeal from a postverdict acquittal. See Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (c) (1), 389 Mass. 1107 (1983). Both parties, therefore, were harmed by judicial error. Because the initial error implicated the defendant's constitutional rights and infected the remainder of the trial, however, we are constrained to conclude that the Commonwealth may not appeal from the allowance of the motion.[1]

         1. Background.

         In November 2016, the defendant was indicted on charges of murder in the first degree, G. L. c. 265, § 1, and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, G. L. c. 265, § 15A (b), in the shooting death of Chaz Burton.

         The defendant was tried before a Superior Court jury.[2] At the close of the Commonwealth's case, he moved under Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a) for a required finding of not guilty as to the charge of murder.[3] During a hearing on the motion, the judge observed that murder premised on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty was "totally unsupported" by the evidence. In addition, she noted that there was no evidence as to the identity of the shooter or the circumstances under which the shooter had acted. The judge summarized the Commonwealth's case as, "some unknown person came down in the middle of [a] melee and shot [the victim] as he was apparently waving a knife" at others, after having stabbed "at least" two people. Based on the evidence of the victim's conduct, the judge said that "there [was] certainly evidence raised of self-defense, [and] defense of others, enough so that the Commonwealth then [had] to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator was not acting in self-defense" or in defense of others.[4] The judge also said that the Commonwealth had failed to present any such evidence and thus that the Commonwealth had not proved that the killing was unlawful. She noted, as well, that the Commonwealth had presented no evidence that the defendant had aided or abetted the shooter. For all practical purposes, the judge thus deemed the evidence insufficient to convict the defendant of murder.

         Acting under an apparent misapprehension of the requirements of Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a), however, the judge said that she was "inclined to reserve" decision on the defendant's rule 25 (a) motion filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case, in order to "let the jury decide it" and to avoid a retrial. The defendant objected, arguing that he was "entitled to a judgment of acquittal at [that] stage" of the trial. The Commonwealth did not object, and indeed made no comment concerning the reservation of decision.

         At the close of all the evidence, the defendant again sought a directed verdict under Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a) with respect to the indictment charging murder in the first degree; the judge reserved decision pursuant to Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (b) (1). After four days of deliberation, the jury convicted the defendant of murder in the second degree and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon.

         The defendant subsequently moved to renew the rule 25 (a) motion that he had filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case. He also moved, in the alternative, for a required finding of not guilty, or other relief, under Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (b) (2). At a hearing on the motion, the defendant argued that it was error for the judge to have reserved decision on the rule 25 (a) motion filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case, and requested that the judge allow the motion nunc pro tunc to the time it had been filed. The Commonwealth did not object to, or otherwise address, the defendant's request to allow his rule 25 (a) motion nunc pro tunc, but did argue that it had presented sufficient evidence to overcome a motion for required finding of not guilty.

         The judge explained that she had reserved decision on the rule 25 (a) motion filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case because she had been "[c]onfident that the jury would see the deficiencies" in the Commonwealth's evidence. She explained further that "there was only one verdict that was legally possible in [her] view, and that was a verdict of not guilty on the murder charge." The judge outlined her view of "deficiencies" in the evidence, including insufficient evidence of an unlawful killing, of aiding and abetting, and of the shooter's identity.[5] Reiterating an apparent misapprehension of the provisions of Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a), the judge said that she had "always thought that if [she] allowed a motion for a directed verdict at the close of the Commonwealth's case," her decision "could be appealed by the Commonwealth and could be reviewed" by an appellate court.

         Ultimately, the judge allowed the defendant's rule 25 (a) motion nunc pro tunc to the close of the Commonwealth's case. In the alternative, the judge allowed the defendant's motion under rule 25 (b) (2) for a required finding as to the murder charge.[6] The prosecutor did not object, and did not seek reconsideration of the judge's decision. Instead, the Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal in the Superior Court and entered its appeal in the Appeals Court. Because the appeal was prematurely filed, it was dismissed without prejudice.

         The defendant filed a motion in the Superior Court to strike the Commonwealth's notice of appeal. He argued that the allowance of his rule 25 (a) motion, nunc pro tunc to the close of the Commonwealth's case, constituted an unreviewable acquittal under principles of double jeopardy. The Commonwealth then filed a petition pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, in the county court, seeking relief from the judge's decision to allow the rule 25 (a) motion nunc pro tunc. The defendant opposed the petition.

         The single justice stayed the defendant's motion to strike the notice of appeal in the Superior Court, and reserved and reported the following questions to the full court:

"1. Whether a judge may reserve ruling on a [Mass. R. Crim. P. 25 (a)] motion made at the close of the Commonwealth's case and, after the jury has returned a guilty verdict, allow that motion nunc pro tunc to the close of the Commonwealth's case, or ...

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