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Commonwealth v. Norris

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

December 20, 2019

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JAMES NORRIS.

          Heard: September 10, 2019.

         Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on March 7, 2000. The case was tried before Tina S. Page, J.; a motion for a new trial, filed on November 12, 2003, was considered by her; and a motion for a new trial, filed on June 23, 2016, was heard by her.

          David H. Erickson for the defendant.

          Joseph G.A. Coliflores, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

          CYPHER, J.

         On November 7, 2001, the defendant, James Norris, was convicted of murder in the first degree on theories of premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty in the stabbing death of the victim, Aaron "Chad" Scott. The defendant's direct appeal was consolidated with his appeals from the denials of his two motions for a new trial. The defendant raises various arguments on appeal. He asserts that his motion for a required finding of not guilty should have been granted; that he received ineffective assistance of counsel; and that the trial judge erred in admitting improper and misleading evidence, failing to sanction the Commonwealth appropriately for destroying exculpatory evidence, and failing to recuse herself. Finally, the defendant argues that the cumulative errors made during the trial amount to a violation of due process and his right to a fair trial.

         After careful consideration of the defendant's arguments on appeal from his conviction and from the denials of his two motions for a new trial, we affirm his conviction and the denials of the motions, and we decline to grant extraordinary relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

         Background.

         We recite the facts the jury could have found, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, while reserving certain details for later discussion.

         The defendant lived with a relative on Wilbraham Road in Springfield. The defendant sold drugs for the victim and his brother, who sublet a home on Brickett Street in Springfield from the defendant. The victim's body was found in the early morning hours of January 18, 2000, in the Brickett Street home (house) after four anonymous 911 calls directed police to the residence.

         The previous evening, at approximately 10:30 P..M., the defendant telephoned Dan Brunelle, a casual associate, to ask for a ride to the house. Brunelle had driven the defendant to the house many times before because Brunelle occasionally purchased "crack" cocaine from the defendant or the victim.

         When Brunelle arrived to pick up the defendant twenty minutes later, the defendant got into Brunelle's van and said, "I'm going to do Chad." After convincing Brunelle that he was joking, the defendant asked Brunelle to stop a few doors away from the house to pick up David Johnson, whom the defendant had invited along to smoke marijuana.[1] During the drive, Brunelle complied with the defendant's request to lend Johnson his gloves, but once they arrived at the house Brunelle became nervous about the defendant's earlier "joke." He got out of the van, stood by the front bumper, and demanded his gloves back.

         Brunelle remained in the van while the defendant and Johnson approached the house. Brunelle saw the pair enter the home, and a silhouette of a third person in the kitchen. Brunelle testified that a moment later, Johnson "burst out" through the storm door, turned around, and put his full weight against the door, "containing what was clearly a struggle on the inside." In a panic, Brunelle drove away to the home of Charles Varner, whom Brunelle considered a brother-in-law.

         Johnson testified that when he entered the home behind the defendant, the defendant and victim had already begun to fight. During that fight, the two men fell against the storm door, which swung open and hit Johnson in the face. After pushing the door shut, Johnson heard the victim say, "Are you going to leave me for dead? Are you going to leave me for dead? I got kids . . . I got little boys," but all Johnson could see was the defendant's arm making "up and down" movements. As Johnson backed away from the door, it "flew open," and the defendant called out to Johnson for help with the victim's body. Shocked and believing the defendant had a knife on him, Johnson remained at the scene, where he witnessed the defendant try to push the victim's body down a flight of stairs before taking a pot of water that was on the stove and splashing it throughout the kitchen and the exterior of the home.

         Once Johnson left the scene, the defendant followed. Johnson testified that after going to a bar to get change, the defendant used a pay telephone to call someone to help him dispose of the body and clean up. As Johnson and the defendant returned to the scene, Johnson saw a vehicle in the driveway.

         Inside the vehicle were Varner and his friend, Keith Freeman, who had arrived at the house after Brunelle had told the men what he had witnessed. Varner testified that when he and Freeman initially arrived at the scene, Varner knocked on the door, but no one answered. As he turned to get back into his vehicle, he saw the defendant, who told him to leave. When Varner informed the defendant that Brunelle had been to his house and that he was there to see "what was going on," the defendant told Varner that Brunelle was a liar, that there had been "a little beef," and that the police had already been there.

         Varner and Freeman began to drive away but then turned around after deciding that things did not "seem right."[2] When they returned, Varner demanded to know where the victim was. The defendant claimed that the victim was not there. Despite the defendant's protests, Varner and Freeman entered the home and saw the victim's jacket in the kitchen. Again, Varner demanded to know where the victim could have gone without a jacket, and Varner and Freeman began to go from room to room, "yelling" the victim's name. While they searched the house, the defendant followed closely behind, pleading with them to leave.

         As they again passed through the kitchen, Varner noticed for the first time what he believed to be a bloody fingerprint on the wall. At some point, Varner and Freeman walked past the door to the basement stairs. When they looked down, they discovered the bloody body of the victim. Varner told the defendant that he was calling the police before he and Freeman left the scene. Varner placed his first telephone call to 911 at 11:42 P. M.

         At approximately 3 A.M. on Tuesday, January 18, 2000, the defendant contacted a friend, Bernard Williams, and asked him to come over to his house. The defendant confessed to Williams that he had stabbed the victim to death and had thrown his body down the stairs. Williams testified that the defendant killed the victim because "things had built up for a long time . . . [t]hey weren't treating him right ... it was over money and disrespect."

         At the close of the Commonwealth's case, the defendant's motion for a required finding of not guilty due to insufficient evidence was denied. The jury found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on theories of premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty, and the defendant appealed.

         After entry of the defendant's appeal in this court, he filed a motion for a new trial asserting that his trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to investigate and use an alibi defense and forensic evidence, and for failing to impeach a key witness for the Commonwealth.[3] The motion judge, who also was the trial judge, denied that motion without a hearing, and she also denied the defendant's motion for reconsideration without a hearing. The defendant appealed from the denial.

         After filing a motion for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, which was granted, the defendant filed a second motion for a new trial. After an evidentiary hearing, the defendant's motion was denied. He appealed, and that appeal was consolidated in this court with the appeal from his conviction and with the appeal from the denial of his first motion for a new trial.

         Discussion.

         1. Denial of motion for a required finding of not guilty.

         The defendant argues he was entitled to a not guilty verdict as a matter of law because there was legally insufficient evidence connecting him to the crime. Specifically, he argues that the lack of forensic evidence no murder weapon was found, no DNA linked the defendant to the crime, and there was no definitive shoe print match "vindicate[s]" him in the face of "the testimony of professed crack cocaine addicts or others with a motive to lie."

         This court must determine whether the evidence was sufficient to satisfy a rational trier of fact of each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 677-678 (1979). "The relevant question is whether the evidence would permit a jury to find guilt, not whether the evidence requires such a finding." Commonwealth v. Brown, 401 Mass. 745, 747 (1988). The evidence against the defendant was substantial. Two witnesses placed the defendant at the scene of the crime, one of whom effectively witnessed the defendant murder the victim. Two other witnesses arrived on the scene as the defendant was attempting to dispose ...


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