In Commonwealth v. Howard the defendant in this case was convicted of first-degree murder on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty in connection with the shooting death of a colleague at their place of work. The defense at trial was that due to diminished capacity, the defendant was unable at the time of the killing to premeditate deliberately, to act with extreme atrocity or cruelty, or to form the intent necessary for malice. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress incriminating statements that he had made to the police during their investigation of the shooting. The judge denied the motion. In the present decision, the SJC reversed that denial and determined that the erroneous admittance of the defendant’s statements along with other errors required reversal of the defendant’s conviction.
Initially, after receiving the Miranda warnings, the defendant waived his right to silence and talked to the investigators. At some point during the interview, he made a clear statement to the officers that he wished to stop talking. Instead of “‘scrupulously honoring’” the defendant’s invocation of his right to silence, as required, the police “pressured the defendant to continue talk and … obtained additional” statements from him, including the incriminating information that every day for two or three months before the shooting, he had carried to work with him the loaded gun with which he eventually killed the victim. The SJC stated that the erroneous admittance of the defendant’s post-invocation statements, “when considered in combination with” improprieties in the prosecutor’s closing argument and errors in the judge’s instructions on mental impairment, was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Regarding those instructions, the Court noted that the judge erred in telling the jury that they could consider the effect of any mental impairment on the defendant’s intent or knowledge vis-à-vis the question whether he committed the killing with extreme atrocity or cruelty. The judge “missed the mark,” explained the Court, because “‘intent and knowledge are not aspects of extreme atrocity or cruelty.’ Rather, it should have been made clear to the jury that they could consider evidence of mental impairment on the specific question whether the murder was committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty.’ ‘A jury could have found the defendant’s act intentional, yet not extremely atrocious or cruel, due to the defendant’s mental impairment. The jury should reflect the community’s conscience in determining what constitutes an extremely cruel or atrocious.