Articles Tagged with #murder

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Although criminal defendants charged with 1st degree murder in Massachusetts do not have a right to bail, the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that a judge has discretion to afford them with a bail. In its decision in Vasquez v. Commonwealth, the SJC explained that bail had been granted in the court’s discretion in capital cases from early colonial times. This “common law” rule had not been changed or overruled by statute.

By way of background, the Massachusetts legislature rewrote the bail statute in 1971. In that amendment, c. 276, sec. 58 established a presumption of release on personal recognizance pending trial. That statute, however, specifically excludes persons charged with “an offense punishable by death”. That provision, however, was interpreted to mean that sec. 58 doesn’t apply to persons charged with murder in the first degree, even though the SJC, in 1981, ruled that the death penalty statute then in effect was unconstitutional. For that reason, sec. 58 does not preclude bail for a person charged with 1st degree murder and it is in the judge’s discretion whether or not grant it – despite that there is no “constitutional right” to be released on bail prior to trial.

With this backdrop, the SJC outlined what factors a judge should consider when a criminal defendant charged with 1st degree murder requests that he be afforded a bail. The factors or balancing test is similar to those that a judge would consider in granting bail to any other criminal defendant, including: the nature and circumstances of the allegations; the defendant’s family background, educational history, financial resources, and ties to the community. Other factors that might also be considered include the defendant’s prior criminal history and/or record of convictions; whether there is any history or record of defaults in court appearances; his character; and his mental condition. The SJC further noted that judge’s should also consider if the murder or other criminal offense charged involved any circumstances of domestic abuse or violation of a restraining order.

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The United States Supreme Court reversed the murder conviction of a Louisiana man and granted him a new trial, finding that the the prosecutor had withheld evidence that could have supported his defense at trial that could have cast doubt on the credibility of prosecution witnesses. This case, Weary v. Cain, is notable because the SJC expanded upon the principle concerning violations of a defendant’s due process rights when the prosecution withholds material evidence.

Under the rule pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, the suppression by the prosecutor of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. In Weary v. Cain, the SJC held that the defendant does not need to establish that “more likely than not” that he would have been acquitted if the withheld evidence had been admitted. Rather, the defendant claiming a “Brady violation” need only show that the evidence is sufficient to “undermine the confidence” in the verdict.

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