Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dead Man's Violent Disposition Helps Harvard Student -- at Least Temporarily

A Massachusetts trial judge, applying a (wise) ruling (in another case) by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last March, Commonwealth v. Adjutant, 443 Mass. 649; 824 N.E.2d 1 (March 14, 2005), vacated the conviction of a Harvard student -- Pring-Wilson -- who had been found guilty of stabbing and killing a man on a Cambridge street late at night. See Boston Globe (online) (June 25, 2005). Defendant claimed that he had killed the dead man in self-defense. Forty witnesses had been prepared to testify to the dead man's violent behavior and propensities but the trial court refused -- under the law applicable at the time, correctly refused -- to admit any of that evidence. (Before Adjutant evidence about the alleged victim's violent nature was admissible only if there was evidence that defendant knew of the alleged victim's violent nature.)

Under Adjutant, whether or not defendant knew of the alleged victim's propensity for violence, evidence about an alleged victim's propensity for violence is now admissible in prosecutions for criminal homicide in Massachusetts courts -- and possibly also in prosecutions for other crimes such in which defendant relies on self-defense or claims mitigation as a result of a physical attack by the alleged victim. (It will be interesting to see if the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court extends the rule of Adjutant to non-violent crimes and thus allows, for example, a defendant in criminal fraud case to offer evidence of the alleged victim's fraudulent propensity and acts to show that the alleged victim engaged in fraud in the transaction on which the prosecution for fraud rests. [But question: Can there ever be a fraud case in which a defendant's fraud is a legally-legitimate defensive measure to an attempt by the alleged victim to defraud the defendant?])

Eight of the jurors who returned a verdict of guilty in the original trial of Pring-Wilson were polled and said that their votes for a verdict of guilty would not have been different had they heard evidence of the dead man's violent propensities.

Under the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision -- Adjutant -- not only is evidence of the alleged victim's propensity toward violence now admissible to show self-defense even though a defendant in a criminal homicide case was unaware at the time of the killing of the victim's propensity, but specific instances of violent acts by the alleged victim are also admissible to show the victim's propensity toward violence.

Legalities aside, one thing impeding the chances for an acquittal if there is a retrial is the fact that defendant was carrying a concealed knife when the fracas that lead to alleged victim's death began.
Despite the results of the newspaper poll of the eight jurors from Pring-Wilson's trial, I predict an acquittal if Pring-Wilson is tried again. It's one thing for a juror to hear a newspaper account of evidence, and it's another to hear the evidence in full-bodied form (and at length) in a courtroom. If even just twenty witness testify to nastily violent behavior by the dead man, an acquittal is more probable than not.
Law school exam question: Could a trial judge exclude the testimony of 20 of the 40 defense witnesses about the violent acts of the dead man on the ground that the testimony of the second set of twenty witness is unduly cumulative -- or on the ground that once the first twenty witnesses have testified about the violent behavior of the dead man, testimony to the same effect from 20 more witnesses is irrelevant?
N.B. The favorable opinion I have of Adjutant is not in the slightest degree due to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's mention in that case of some written text that I authored. I am a scholar and worldly repute matters not one whit to me! (If you believe what I have just said, I would like to talk to you about a bridge in Brooklyn that might well be for sale -- at a quite reasonable price.)
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