The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in the case of Commonwealth v. Brescia, affirmed a judge’s allowance of the defendant’s motion for new trial on the grounds of, because of the defendant’s having had an undetected stroke during the course of his testimony, this medical condition could have affected his credibility before the jury.
James Brescia was tried in the Middlesex Superior Court in 2006, charged with murder in the shooting death of a man whom he believed was having an affair with his wife. The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office alleged that the defendant had hired an assassin to kill his wife. During trial, the defendant elected to testify in his own defense; and he was cross-examined by the prosecution over two days.
Following his testimony and after the jury had been charged, he was transported to the hospital. It was determined that he had suffered a stroke sometime between the first and second days of his testimony. That jury, who later returned guilty verdicts on the charge of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, were never made aware that the defendant had suffered a stroke.
Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion of new trial on the basis that, because the defendant’s then undetected stroke had affected the course of his testimony in a manner that may have damaged his credibility before the jury, his conviction should be reversed and he should be afforded a new trial. The judge agreed with the defendant, and ruled that the outcome of this trial had turned, in large part, on the jury’s assessments of credibility. Therefore, the judge ruled, “justice may not have been done”.
The Commonwealth appeals the judge’s allowance of the motion for new trial to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the judge’s ruling.
Following a conviction in Massachusetts, the Rules of Criminal Procedure permit a defendant to bring a motion before the judge who “may grant a new trial at any time if it appears that justice may not have been done”.
In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed that the central issue at trial turned on whether the jury believed the defendant’s testimony that he had not asked the hitman to kill his wife. On the second day of his testimony, after the stroke, the defendant had apparent difficulty understanding questions and communicating his answers. For example, the defendant asked a question to be repeated 15 times, or indicated he was confused. He had also answered 36 times to questions by saying he did not know the answer; and also appeared to answer an entirely different question from the one had been asked. His demeanor following the stroke could have suggested deliberate evasiveness to the jury.
Because of the then undetected stroke, the defendant’s demeanor, the consistency of his answers, and any appearance that he might have been avoiding the prosecutor’s questions, could have affected how the jury assessed his credibility. In this regard, the effect of the defendant’s stroke materially affected the defendant’s ability to mount a successful defense.
Boston Criminal Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis represents persons charged with misdemeanor and felony crimes in Massachusetts, including murder, sex crimes, and other crimes of violence. He also has experience in representing persons post-conviction on appeal.
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