Blog

Lecture: Felony Murder after Brown

After drafting an amicus brief on behalf of MACDL with Foley Hoag partner Neil Austin which helped convince the Massachusetts SJC to abandon the 150 year old felony murder rule in Commonwealth v. Brown, Attorney Wood gave a lecture on March 16, 2018, at the annual MACDL Advanced Post-Conviction Seminar, at Wilmer Hale in Boston, explaining the consequences of this ground-breaking decision. An outline of Attorney Wood's lecture is available here.

No Suspicionless Border Searches

We were pleased to partner with the Constitutional Accountability Center to file an amicus brief in support of the ACLU's challenge to suspicionless border searches of electronic devices in Alasaad v. Duke. The briefs are here. The government should not have unchecked power to trawl through our electronic devices. It is an invitation to profiling and other abuses.

Disappointing Decision on Pretextual Stops

We are disappointed in the SJC’s ruling today that pretextual traffic stops are permissible. The opinion expresses concern about the problem of racial profiling and “driving while black.” But in deciding the issues, it emphasizes the difficulties faced by judges asked to decide that a stop was pretextual. In contrast, the opinion gives short shrift to the real world difficulties faced by people who are subjected to pretextual stops. Pretextual stops lead to not just inconvenience, but embarrassment, missed appointments, lost pay, lost jobs, and even lost lives. A judge’s supposed difficulty in deciding whether a stop was pretextual should not outweigh the difficulties of the people of the Commonwealth. 

Botched Title IX Case Leads to Yale Settlement

We read with interest about this case from Connecticut in which Yale was forced to settle a claim that it wrongfully expelled a student who was the subject of a false sexual assault claim. The case involved personal vendettas, student group politics, and and an unfair disciplinary process. Even when well-intentioned, these hearings can quickly go off the rails. If you are the subject of a Title IX complaint, you need counsel!

Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform: What’s in the Bill?

The Massachusetts Senate passed a major criminal justice reform bill on October 27, 2017 and the legislation is now before our House of Representatives. Broadly speaking, the Senate bill represents a victory for the “smart on crime” approach that has swept state legislatures in recent years, even in the most conservative states. The fact is that you cannot arrest or prosecute your way out of social problems. The “tough on crime” approach has failed, proving instead to be disproportionate, destroying poor communities and communities of color, and seriously burdening taxpayers with the high fiscal and social cost of unnecessary incarceration.

Title IX Sexual Assault Investigation Policy Changes

Recent Department of Education policy changes under Title IX require that students accused of sexual misconduct be informed of the allegations in writing. They also allow for a higher standard of proof such as clear and convincing evidence, do not require that investigations be completed in 60 days, and allow for mediation. While all of these changes might seem obvious and non-controversial to those familiar with basic notions of due process in the American criminal justice system, they are important steps forward in the evolution of disciplinary procedures designed to adjudicate sexual assault allegations fairly and reliably on college campuses.

Commonwealth v. Timothy Brown: Felony Murder Limited

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.

Resources for Research

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.

Scientific and medical information can be found at:  Pubmed  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/advanced) and Pubmed Central (full text) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/).

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:

And great general purpose research tools include:

Troubling Double Jeopardy Ruling

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:

Superior Courts struggle to reconcile Dyer and Lavoie

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.

Beyond Lavoie: Commonwealth v. Morganti and Commonwealth v. Alebord

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.

Commonwealth v. Lavoie: counsel can waive public trial right without client's consent

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.

Felton and White: Two Superior Court Judges Grant New Trials

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.

Perez and Morganti: Conflicting Views of De Minimis Violations of the Public Trial Right

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.)

Commonwealth v. Dyer - SJC Muddles Waiver Doctrine as it Applies to Public Trial Right

In Commonwealth v. Dyer (October 13, 2011), the SJC held that a defendant convicted of murder had waived a claim that his right to a public trial had been violated because neither the defendant nor his counsel raised a contemporaneous objection when juror voir dire was held in the judge's chambers.  Moreover, the SJC held that because the defendant had waived the claim, he was not entitled to the benefit of structural error analysis, but rather was limited to the traditional standard of review for waived claims under GL Ch. 278 Section 33E - whether the error raised a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.

Commonwealth v. Lavoie - Defense Counsel May Not Waive the Public Trial Right on Behalf of His Client if He Has Not Discussed the Right With the Defendant

In Commonwealth v. Lavoie, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 546 (October 3, 2011), a divided panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court reaffirmed that where there has been a closure of a courtroom for Sixth Amendment purposes, a defendant must personally and knowingly waive the right to a public trial and that in the absence of such a personal knowing waiver, reversal of the conviction is required unless the Court has previously made findings justifying closure as required by Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984).   The Court made clear that there is no valid waiver even if defense counsel knows that the courtroom has been closed during jury selection and decides not to object for tactical reasons, but never discusses the public trial right with the defendant.