PRIOR ACTS OF ALLEGED VICTIM ARE NOT ADMISSIBLE WHEN EVIDENCE SHOWS THAT ACCUSED IS THE FIRST AGGRESSOR

In Commonwealth v. Camacho, in  affirming the defendant’s convictions of first-degree murder and related offenses (as well as the denial of his postconviction motions for discovery and for a new trial), the Supreme Judicial Court SJC ruled that the judge properly “excluded … so-called Adjutant Commonwealth v. Adjutant) evidence of prior violent acts of the [murder] victim and his friends,..” The case arose from an altercation in the bar area of a night club between two groups of men. One of the groups consisted of the defendant and some of his friends; the other group consisted of friends of the victim. The victim himself was standing some distance from the bar when one of his friends (Rodriguez) initiated the altercation by throwing “a beer bottle at the head” of a member of the defendant’s group (Sunsin). The latter “then tackled Rodriguez, the two men fell to the ground, and some of the victim’s group jumped on top of Sunsin and started to hit him…. The defendant then jumped up from his seat, took out a firearm … and started firing at the victim’s group. While the victim and two other men were attempting to flee from the gunfire, shots struck them…. As the defendant chased the fleeing group out of the club, he approached the victim, who was lying on the floor, and shot him two more times from less than two feet away.” “At trial, the Commonwealth proceeded with respect to the murder charge on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty.” The defendant contended that he had fired his gun in defense of Sunsin.

“On appeal, the defendant argued that the judge erred, under Adjutant, in barring him from introducing evidence of the past violent crimes of the victim, Rodriguez, and Reis-another member of the victim’s group.” “At the time of trial, the law of this Commonwealth, as delineated in Adjutant, 443 Mass. at 664, was that ‘where the identity of the first aggressor is in dispute and the victim has a history of violence, … the trial judge has the discretion to admit evidence of specific acts of prior violent conduct that the victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated, to support the defendant’s claim of self-defense’ (emphasis added).” The subsequent decision in Commonwealth v. Chambers, “clarified the breadth of admissible prior violent acts under Adjutant.” In the present decision, the SJC stated that the defendant’s claim “under Adjutant, … as later clarified by Chambers, [was] meritless, as both cases were inapplicable here. It was undisputed at trial that Rodriguez was the first aggressor who started the chain of events that resulted in the victim’s death. Accordingly, when assessed exclusively through the lens of Adjutant, the judge correctly determined that evidence of the victim’s, Rodriguez’s, and Reis’s prior violent acts was irrelevant to prove who acted as the first aggressor.” The Court cited two additional reasons why Adjutant and Chambers were inapplicable to this case. First, “Adjutant evidence is admissible only where the victim is involved in the altercation that leads to his death…. Here, there was simply no credible evidence that the victim was involved in any of the events that unfolded between the time when Rodriguez threw the bottle at Sunsin and the defendant fired his weapon.” The victim was not near the bar during that period. Second, “‘our decision in the Adjutant case is specifically limited to situations where the defendant claims self-defense.’   Here, the defendant has not argued self-defense, and we decline to extend the Adjutant doctrine to cases involving defense of another.”

Also in this decision, the SJC ruled that certain comments by the prosecutor in closing argument were erroneous, but that they did not create a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. The Court disapproved of the prosecutor’s invocation of “‘the smell of blood at the crime scene…. A blood pool, a puddle of blood … seeping out of the victim’s body as his life seeped out of his body….” Also inappropriate, in the Court’s view, were these comments regarding the murder victim’s last moments of life: “‘Think about landing face down on that dirty, beer-stained barroom floor. You are completely helpless, … you’re laying there bleeding, in pain, in terror…. It was a horrible, brutal, vicious death.’” “These remarks,” stated the Court, “attempting to arouse sympathy and invite the jury into the victim’s position, were improper.”

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