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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Withholding Exculpatory Statement Change by Key Witness Constitutes Brady Violation, Requiring New Trial

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the prosecution in a first-degree murder (extreme atrocity or cruelty) trial failed to disclose material, exculpatory evidence that a key witness had changed her testimony to include visceral depictions of the victim’s dying last words and the defendant’s reaction, which required vacating the conviction and a new trial.

Jorge Rodriguez-Nieves confronted Angel Morales whom he believed had been spreading rumors that he was cheating on his live-in girlfriend. In front of numerous witnesses, Rodriguez-Nieves chased Morales into a parking lot and, after Morales tripped and fell, held him down and stabbed him once in the neck with a knife. Rodriguez-Nieves was indicted for first-degree murder. At trial, the prosecution proceeded on theories of premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. Aided by attorney Merritt Schipper, Rodriguez-Nieves appealed.

The medical examiner testified that death was caused by a stab wound that was about five inches deep which cut into the trachea, through the right carotid artery, and left jugular vein. He said Morales would have been choking on his own blood and in pain for minutes before losing consciousness and dying. He was not asked whether Morales could have spoken during that time.

Morales’ stepdaughter, Geneciz Diaz, and several others witnessed the murder. Diaz testified that, after stabbing Morales, Rodriguez-Nieves walked over to a nearby stop sign to laugh. She emotionally testified that she went to the dying Morales, and he “looked at me and he said: take care of the children. He was saying my daughter … was his princess.… He told me to take care of his girls and he fell.” She was the only one of the many nearby witnesses, all of whom were members of the Morales family, to allegedly hear Morales speak or see Rodriguez-Nieves laugh. Rodriguez-Nieves only learned about the events Diaz was alleging as she was testifying at trial.

After the trial, Rodriguez-Nieves retained a forensic pathologist who found it highly unlikely that Morales could have spoken after he was stabbed in the neck. He also obtained the prosecutor’s notes that showed that Diaz never claimed Morales had spoken or Rodriguez-Nieves had laughed until two days before trial, and the prosecutor knew that her changed statement from the initial police report would be relevant to the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. Yet he never disclosed that information to the defense. Rodriguez-Nieves filed a motion for new trial based on the undisclosed change in Diaz’s testimony and the fact that defense counsel would have hired a forensic pathologist to show Morales could not have spoken after being stabbed had the defense known about the change in Diaz’s testimony. The motion was denied, and an appeal followed.

The Supreme Judicial Court began its analysis by noting that the prosecution had a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence as required by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The Court explained that in determining whether the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the change in Diaz’s statement requires a new trial, it considers “(i) whether the prosecutor violated the constitutional duty to disclose material, exculpatory evidence in the Commonwealth’s possession, custody, or control, and (ii) if so, whether the defendant has shown that he was prejudiced in his ability ‘to make effective use of the evidence in preparing and presenting his case’ when he first learned of the evidence in the heat of trial.” Commonwealth v. Adrey, 383 N.E.2d 1110 (Mass. 1978). The prosecution has a duty to disclose such evidence in its possession “at such a time as to allow the defense to use the favorable material effectively in the preparation and presentation of its case.” Commonwealth v. Wilson, 407 N.E.2d 1229 (1980) (quoting United States v. Pollack, 534 F.2d 964 (D.C. Cir. 1976)).

The Court observed that newly discovered evidence “warrants a new trial if that evidence casts real doubt on the justice of the conviction, in the sense that the evidence would probably have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberations.” Commonwealth v. Brescia, 29 N.E.3d 837 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court stated that it “is indisputable that” there was a Brady violation. The determinative issue in the case was whether that violation prejudiced Rodriguez-Nieves, according to the Court.

Because the withheld exculpatory evidence would have caused defense counsel to change strategy and hire a forensic expert to impeach Diaz’s testimony and Diaz ‘s testimony was crucial to the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, the Court concluded that the prosecution’s Brady violation cast doubt on the justice of the conviction. Thus, the Court held that “a new trial is required.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the conviction and remanded for a new trial. See: Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, 165 N.E.3d 1028 (Mass. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves

 

 

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