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Massachusetts High Court Vacates Felony-Murder Conviction for Failure to Suppress Cellphone Search

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed a felony-murder conviction and sent the case back for a new trial because the trial court failed to suppress evidence obtained from an illegal search of the defendant’s cellphone.

The November 21, 2017, opinion overturned the conviction of Aaron Morin for the felony-murder of Chad Fleming in November 2009. Morin and his co-defendant Nelson Melo allegedly conspired to rob Fleming, a supplier of Percocet pills. During the robbery, which was not intended to include a murder, Morin fought back and was beaten and strangled to death.

At trial, the prosecution presented three theories of guilt: premeditated murder, extreme atrocity or cruelty murder, and felony-murder, with the unarmed robbery as the predicate felony. The jury convicted Morin of felony murder. Morin moved for a new trial and was denied. His direct appeal and his motion for a new trial were consolidated for review by the Supreme Court.

Morin initially argued that the evidence did not support his conviction because he wasn’t there when Fleming was murdered and that there had been no plan to kill him.

In rejecting this argument, the Court pointed out that a felony-murder conviction requires neither of these elements. In fact, it noted that a felony-murder conviction doesn’t even require evidence that the victim died during the commission of the underlying crime.

Morin also argued that the trial court erred by failing to suppress evidence obtained from his cellphone. The court agreed with Morin that because the warrant affidavit did not establish probable cause to search the phone, the evidence should have been suppressed. The warrant suffered from a lack of particularized information about how the phone contained evidence relating to the crime.

“Here, the affidavit stated that the codefendant ‘made several telephone calls to [the defendant] before and after’ the time of the homicide,” wrote the Court. “At best, it established a personal relationship between the [codefendant] . . . and the defendant, and that they had communicated by cellular telephone before and after the killing. Nothing in the affidavit indicated the defendant’s cellular telephone would contain particular evidence related to the crime under investigation.”

Because the evidence obtained from the phone was central to the prosecution’s case and likely had an impact on the jury’s thinking and verdict, the Court vacated the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Finally, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declined Morin’s invitation to abolish the felony-murder doctrine. The Court noted that it similarly declined to do so in Commonwealth v. Brown, 81 N.E.3d 1173 (Mass. 2017). It explained that “we narrowed the application of the felony-murder rule to eliminate felony-murder as an independent theory of liability” in Brown. For trials after Brown, “a defendant no longer may be convicted of murder absent proof of one of the three prongs of malice.” The Court instructed that any retrial of Morin will be subject to the Brown rule. See: Commonwealth v. Morin, 85 N.E.3d 949 (Mass. 2017). 

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