SJC Ruling Changes Proof of First Degree Murder

On October 6, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ( SJC) issued an important and long-overdue ruling increasing the elements of proof the prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction for a particular theory of 1st degree murder. Generally, after proving the existence of “malice aforethought” (evil intent), which is required for both 1st and 2nd degree murder, to sustain a conviction of 1st degree murder, prosecutors must establish one of the following:

  1. The murder was committed with deliberate premeditation.
  2. The murder was committed with extreme atrocity and cruelty.
  3. The murder was committed during the commission of a life felony.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt of any one of these three theories is sufficient to establish 1st degree murder. At sentencing, the difference between a 1st and 2nd degree murder conviction is life in prison “without any possibility of parole” or a life sentence with parole eligibility.

The SJC focused its unanimous decision in Commonwealth v. Peter Castillo on the second of the three alternative theories, “murder with extreme atrocity and cruelty”. For years, MA prosecutors have used this theory as a fall back for securing mandatory life sentences in cases in which deliberate premeditation was not proven and felony-murder did not apply by proving---often with speculative medical opinion testimony--- that a victim who did not immediately die likely suffered or experienced pain in the course of expiring, even if only over a period of minutes. Given the statutory emphasis on the adjective “extreme”, it was not surprising the SJC decided the “conscious degree of suffering of the victim”, alone, is no longer enough to establish extreme atrocity or cruelty. This is not only because in virtually any murder case where the victim did not instantly die, it is easy for a prosecutor to establish a victim’s pain or suffering from a medical standpoint----reducing what is supposed to be an aggravating circumstance to a routine circumstance, but also because in the words of the late SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who authored the opinion prior to his recent and untimely death, this particular theory also requires a jury to determine whether the defendant’s conduct was “extreme in either its brutality or cruelty”. For this reason, the Court imposed the following new rules for proof of 1st degree murder with extreme atrocity or cruelty:

The defendant was indifferent or took pleasure in the suffering of the deceased”; or “The defendant’s method or means of killing the deceased [was] reasonably likely to increase or prolong the conscious suffering of the deceased”; or “The means used by the defendant [was]…excessive and out of proportion to what would be needed to kill a person.”

Murder cases are difficult and nuanced; the stakes cannot be higher. In depth understanding of the legal distinctions between 1st and 2nd degree murder, and also between murder and manslaughter, is often the difference between life without parole, a lifetime sentence with parole eligibility, a lesser sentence of a term of years, and/or possible exoneration or acquittal.

Great care should be taken in selecting a lawyer to defend an accusation of murder; training, extensive experience, refined court-room skills, and a record of accomplishment always make a difference. Brad Bailey is a former state homicide prosecutor, who has over two-decades of experience defending murder charges in front of juries in multiple states. He and the lawyers at Brad Bailey Law PC have an impressive record of obtaining acquittals, dismissals, lesser-count verdicts, as well as overturning convictions on appeal, in murder 1 cases.

If you or a loved one are facing murder charges, do not hesitate to call Brad Bailey Law PC.

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