On September 20, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court, in a four-judge concurring opinion in Commonwealth v. Timothy Brown, abolished the current Massachusetts doctrine of felony murder and replaced it with a new doctrine that requires the prosecution to prove actual malice. As Attorney Nathanson commented in the Boston Globe (here or here), felony murder law was "the ultimate technicality" because murder requires proof of malice, but felony murder replaced that with simply the intent to commit a felony. That rule did violence to some of our most basic principles of criminal justice: (a) that the government must prove all the elements of the crime, including intent, (b) that the defendant is presumed innocent, rather than essentially presuming his guilt of murder from his commission of some other offense, and (c) most importantly punishment - here, life imprisonment without parole - must fit the defendant's culpability or blameworthiness, rather than punishing him for unintended consequences from accidents or out-of-control compatriots.
This decision was part of long campaign against felony murder. Wood & Nathanson played an important role in that campaign. As we noted in April, Attorney Wood and a team from Foley Hoag argued in Commonwealth v. Morin for the abolition of felony murder for precisely the reasons the Chief Justice Gants gives in the Brown opinion. We are particularly proud of the work of Attorney Wood, along with K. Neil Austin and the team from Foley Hoag, on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in that case. The brief is here. While the defendant in Brown did raise the issue, the Morin challenge was the most recent, most comprehensive and most direct challenge to the entire felony murder doctrine, citing multistate research and academic work that was at the heart of Chief Justice Gants' decision in Brown.
This win is particularly gratifying to us because primarily because it is a right and just decision. But also, it represents a success of our philosophy of arguing for fundamental reform in the criminal law and enlisting the support of anyone and everyone who can help, in this case the great team from the international law firm Foley Hoag, LLP.
We now move on to similarly important fights, including the adoption of a "reasonable juvenile" mental state standard in juvenile cases, and the outlawing of pretextual traffic stops.
Below you will find links to some great (and free) resources for creative and effective legal writing.
First, always use your public library! Most provide free access to excellent online academic databases including Academic OneFile.
Sign up for notifications regarding the latest law-related neuroscience publications here: http://www.lawneuro.org/listserv.php.
Keep abreast of current and developing issues at the Supreme Court using Cert Pool (http://certpool.com) and Seton Hall's law review focusing on splits of opinion among the federal courts of appeal (http://scholarship.shu.edu/circuit_review/).
Great resources for full text historical legal writings and original documents include The Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/texts), Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org) and Yale University's Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/default.asp). Others include:
- Federalist Papers: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html
- Collections of the Founders: http://founders.archives.gov/
- Historical legal dictionaries: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/559416
And great general purpose research tools include:
- Massachusetts Trial Court Libraries: http://www.mass.gov/courts/case-legal-res/law-lib/libraries/services/
- Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/
- Stanford University's guide to low or no cost legal research: https://law.stanford.edu/robert-crown-law-library/research-resources/brief-guide-lowno-cost-online-american-legal-research/
- American Bar Association's free journal search: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources/resources/free_journal_search.html
On May 31, 2016, Justice Richard Tucker granted Attorney Wood’s motion for new trial in Commonwealth v. Cosenza, a 2000 armed burglary case in which the trial judge had excluded the eyewitness expert testimony of Dr. Steven Penrod. Attorney Wood has been fighting for Mr. Cosenza for more than a decade.
Attorney Nathanson was recently interviewed by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly regarding the First Circuit's troubling decision in United States v. Szypt. In that case, the First Circuit had allowed a defendant to be prosecuted a second time even though the lower court had entered a not guilty finding after the defendant won his first appeal. The First Circuit said its ruling in the first appeal was not intended to order an acquittal, even though that is what the lower court actually ordered. The MLW article quotes Attorney Nathanson:
Many people have inquired how to proceed with public trial claims after the SJC's decisions in Commonwealth v. Morganti, 467 Mass. 96 (2014), and Commonwealth v. Alebord, 467 Mass. 106 (2014).
An alarming pattern seems to have emerged over the past two months as three different superior court judges have denied new trial motions alleging violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, despite conceding that right was violated and neither the defendants nor their trial counsel knowingly waived the right. In Commonwealth v. Kenneally (SUCR2001-10462, Brassard) (Jan. 30, 2013), Commonwealth v. McNeil (PLCR2000-03965, Chin) (Feb. 21, 2013), and Commonwealth v. Weaver (SUCR2003-11293, Hines) (Feb. 22, 2013), superior court judges all adopted remarkably similar reasoning to reject these claims.
The SJC has agreed to hear two cases involving the violation of defendants' federal constitutional right to a public trial. In these cases, the SJC should address a crucial question: whether a defendant is entitled to relief for the violation of his right to a public trial where he did not raise the issue at any point prior to or during his direct appeal.
On January 11, 2013, the SJC held in Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 464 Mass. 83 (2013), that an attorney may knowingly waive his client's federal constitutional right to a public trial without the client's knowledge or consent. It would appear that Lavoie applies only in those situations where counsel (1) knows the public has been excluded from jury selection AND (2) makes a conscious decision to waive the public trial right.
In Commonwealth v. Felton (Essex Co.) and Commonwealth v. White (Norfolk Co.), two superior court judges granted new trials in major felony cases based on violations of the right to a public trial during jury selection. These cases appear to indicate a growing recognition among trial judges that where the defense demonstrates a violation of the right to a public trial during jury selection and the Commonwealth fails to establish a knowing waiver of the right, reversal of the conviction is required.
In the past week, two superior court judges issued a pair of decisions that reveal some very exciting developments concerning the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The cases are Commonwealth v. Perez, ESCR 2005-00947 (Whitehead, J.) and Commonwealth v. Morganti, PLCR 1998-00940 (Giles, J) (Memorandum of Decision, December 15, 2011). (More accurately, Judge Whitehead issued his Perez decision about a year ago (Memorandum of Decision and Order, December 2, 2010), but last week, he reaffirmed it after a request for reconsideration in light of recent appellate court decisions.)