In Commonwealth v. Philbrook (2016), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed the defendant’s convictions of first-degree murder and related offenses, and the SJC ruled that the judge did not abuse her discretion in admitting evidence of other bad acts by the defendant “shortly prior to and immediately following the killing.” The facts are as follows. “The defendant and his former wife were divorced in 1975, but had been living together for many years when … the defendant shot her five times on the street in front of their house …, in view of some of their neighbors. The defendant does not dispute that he was the shooter. His defense at trial was that he was not criminally responsible because the prescription medications that he was taking exacerbated an underlying organic brain disease, creating a mental disease or defect that caused him to be unable to conform his actions to the law.” The evidence at trial included testimony that the relationship between the defendant and his former wife “was tumultuous, and that they ‘constantly’ fought about money. In the week prior to the shooting, the defendant told his granddaughter that he believed the victim had stolen $50,000 from him and had spent the money on lottery tickets. He said that if he learned his suspicions were correct, he would shoot and kill her…. Two days before the shooting, the defendant went to an athletic club where he worked as a janitor and struck one of the club patrons with a baseball bat. He told police he had done so because he believed that the patron had stolen $700 from him. Following this incident, the defendant was fired from his job at the club.” On appeal, the defendant contended that the judge’s admission of the evidence regarding the defendant’s attack on the club patron, to which the defendant had objected, constituted an abuse of discretion and that, even if the evidence was probative, it was unfairly prejudicial.
In its decision rejecting the defendant’s argument, the SJC reasoned that “the evidence of the defendant’s attack on the club member supported the Commonwealth’s theory of the defendant’s motive and intent that, during the days preceding the shooting, the defendant had been preoccupied with financial worries, which intensified the day before the shooting, when he lost his job, resulting in an escalation of his arguments with the victim about the money he accused her of taking from him.” The SJC also stated that considering defense of lack of criminal responsibility, the evidence regarding the attack on the club patron “was relevant to whether the defendant’s conduct was intentional, and not the result of compulsive or illogical thoughts brought on by brain disease that had been exacerbated by his medications.” The evidence included testimony that “the defendant appeared calm and collected” as he waited at the club for the patron to arrive. “During the attack, the defendant accidently knocked over a table with some drinks. When he noticed the table was knocked over, he apologized to those whose drinks he had spilled, and stated that the attack did not involve them. The individual he had attacked testified at trial that the defendant remembered the attack the following day, and was still angry. The testimony was that the defendant told him that he had been following his movements and knew his routine, and then accurately related to him the events of the previous day.” In the Court’s view, “the jury could infer from this evidence that the attack on the club member was planned in advance and was executed in a deliberate manner,” i.e., that the defendant was rational, not delusional, in the days before he killed his former wife.