The Massachusetts SJC unfortunately decided a case, in my opinion, the wrong way. In Commonwealth v. Kevin Keo, the Supreme Judicial Court considered whether the defendant, convicted of first-degree murder, was entitled to a new trial where his attorney failed to obtain a full transcript of a witness’s testimony from a separate trial and where the prosecutor gave two inconsistent closing argument at the two trials as to who the shooter was.
At the defendant’s murder, trial the prosecutor presented a theory of deliberate premeditation and he was convicted by a jury. HIs trial, however, came after the trial of his co-defendant, in which the prosecutor proceeded under the theory that the co-defendant was the shooter. In this case and in the subsequent trial, the prosecutor suggested that the defendant was the shooter – arguably inconsistent theories.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, however, held that the defendant’s due process rights were not violated because the Commonwealth proceeded on a theory of aiding and abetting – that he had or shared the intent required to commit the crime of murder. The SJC also pointed out that that, in both trials, the prosecutor stated in his closing argument that it didn’t matter who shot the victim and the evidence was similar in each trial.
In a forceful dissent, however, the court stressed that in circumstances where different theories are presented at separate trials, juries should be informed “that the government at one time believed…that its proof established something different from what it currently claims.”
The dissent further explained that in order for the public to have confidence in the jury system, the government should not be able to make material changes in its version of facts or theories between trials, and then withhold those changes from the jury. The dissenting judges specifically took issue with the prosecutor’s assertion at the first trial that the co-defendant was the shooter; and then asserted that the defendant was shooter at his trial.
The dissent explained that the jury should have been made aware that the government’s initial theory was that the co-defendant was the shooter because this might have bolstered the defendant’s defense that he was not the shooter. Had the jury been provided with this information, it may very well be possible that the jury could have found reasonable doubt and acquitted the defendant.
Despite the result, the majority did strongly advise that prosecutors should “proceed with caution” if they assert inconsistent arguments in different trials concerning the same crime.
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