Com. v. Haas

Decision Date01 November 1977
Citation369 N.E.2d 692,373 Mass. 545
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

David G. Hanrahan, Boston (John S. Leonard, Boston, with him), for defendant.

John C. Doherty, Asst. Dist. Atty., for the Com.


ABRAMS, Justice.

Convicted of murder in the first degree of his pregnant wife and two young children, Gordon F. Haas (Haas) appeals to this court pursuant to G.L. c. 278, §§ 33A-33H. Although Haas argues numerous assignments of error, we concern ourselves primarily with two of the grounds asserted as error: (1) the denial of three motions to suppress evidence, and (2) prosecutorial comment on Haas' failure to deny committing the crimes. We reverse the convictions and remand for a new trial. We also consider those evidentiary issues likely to recur in a new trial.

The basic facts, which are not in dispute, may be summarized as follows. Gordon F. Haas, a Williams College graduate, and his wife, Shirley, were married in 1965. In 1969, their first child, a son, was born. Approximately twenty-one months later a second child, a daughter, was born. During this period Haas commenced working for Lechmere Sales, and the family moved into a single-family home in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In June, 1973, Haas was still employed at Lechmere Sales, and the family lived in their Ipswich home. Mrs. Haas was pregnant.

On June 26, 1973, Haas arrived at Lechmere Sales in Cambridge at 7:30 A.M. He performed his job that morning in what appeared to be a normal manner. A fellow employee observed some scratches on the right side of Haas' face. Haas said, "I leaned over to kiss Shirley and she must have been having a nightmare or something and she scratched me."

About 10:15 A.M., Robert Christensen, a friend and coworker, entered the defendant's office and observed the defendant hanging up the telephone. The defendant then called the Ipswich police station and spoke to the desk officer. He stated that he had just received an anonymous telephone call to the effect that "black and white don't mix" and that his family had just been "taken care of." 1 He requested that an officer check on the welfare of his family and left a telephone number at which he could be reached.

An Ipswich police officer was dispatched to the Haas home to investigate. He found the front door ajar with a key in the lock. After calling out and receiving no response, the officer entered the house and discovered the bodies of Mrs. Haas and the children in their beds in separate bedrooms. Each victim's head was covered with a white plastic bag tightly secured with adhesive tape. 2

The investigating officer radioed for an ambulance and for additional assistance. State and local police officers, including the Ipswich chief of police and a medical examiner, converged on the scene. An investigation commenced. The house was observed to be in order, the windows appeared to be secure, and the backyard, which was muddy, contained no footprints. The only sign of any physical disturbance was in the master bedroom (the location of Mrs. Haas' body) where the sheets were off the bed. In that room a sign which read "(b)lack and white don't mix" was found.

The medical examiner examined the bodies and informed the chief of police that each victim died between 3 and 5 A.M. He also noted that the fingernail on the middle finger of Mrs. Haas' right hand was broken.

The police did not return Haas' call, and sometime after the discovery, Haas again called the police station. Haas was told to come home but was not told what the police had found.

After learning of the medical examiner's opinion as to the estimated time of death, the chief instructed his men not to let the defendant in the house when he arrived home; instead, they were told to take the defendant to the police station, inform him of the deaths, and ask him what time he left for work that morning. Approximately thirty to forty-five minutes later, the defendant arrived at his house in a car driven by Christensen. After Haas got out of the car, he was met by one of the members of the Ipswich police, Officer Rauscher, with whom he had a brief conversation. 3 Haas then got in the back seat of a police car. Christensen, Officer Rauscher, and Officer Surpitski, an inspector for the Ipswich police department, also got in the car. The defendant was driven to the police station, where the four men went into the inspector's room. At this time, Haas was first advised of the deaths of his entire family. Moments thereafter, Haas was asked what time he left for work. Haas replied, "I want to be helpful. I left between 6:15 and 6:30."

After calling the chief, the officers placed the defendant under arrest and read him his Miranda rights. Haas signed a waiver of rights form, and then responded to further questions. Haas told the officers he arrived home at approximately 11:15 the previous evening. His wife arrived home at approximately the same time, and that after chatting they went to bed. Haas said he and his wife had slept in the master bedroom that night, and that he left home at approximately 6:30 A.M. on June 26.

At the conclusion of the interrogation, the defendant was booked and certain belongings were removed from his person and inventoried. Among the items were four handwritten notes. One, which was especially incriminating, appeared to be a list, including the words "gloves, overalls, tape, bags, ether, mask."

At trial, the Commonwealth's evidence was circumstantial. The prearrest, pre-Miranda warning statement made by the defendant at the station, and the four notes were introduced in evidence.

1. Motions to Suppress. Prior to trial, defense counsel filed three separate motions seeking to suppress (1) the oral statements made by the defendant at the Ipswich police station; (2) the four notes seized during the booking procedure; and (3) photographs showing scratches on the defendant's face, taken after his arrest. Haas claimed that his statement that he left his home at 6:30 A.M. on the day of the crimes was obtained in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). He also alleged that, as a consequence, his subsequent arrest was illegal and the fruits of the arrest his further statements, the notes and the photographs were tainted by the primary illegality. Haas argues that the Superior Court judge erred when he denied these motions.

It is undisputed that Haas made the critical statement prior to his having been advised of his Miranda rights. The crucial question is whether warnings were required at that time. The determination hinges on whether the police officers were conducting a "custodial interrogation." See Miranda v. Arizona, supra at 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602.

After voir dire, the judge found that "(t)here was no police interrogation of the defendant prior to his arrest, either at the defendant's property, in the police cruiser, or at the police station," and that the defendant "was under no restraint, and not held in custody" when he accompanied the police to the inspector's office. It is this conclusion of law which we review. 4

We are mindful that the responsibility of weighing credibility and finding fact is reposed in the trial court. In reviewing the testimony adduced at voir dire, we do not attempt to usurp that authority nor do we seek to exceed the limitations traditionally placed on us as an appellate court. Nevertheless, where the ultimate findings and rulings bear on issues of constitutional dimension, they are open for review. Our appellate function requires that we make our own independent determination on the correctness of the judge's "application of constitutional principles to the facts as found . . . ." Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 97 S.Ct. 1232, 1242, 51 L.Ed.2d 424 (1977), quoting from the separate opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 507, 73 S.Ct. 397, 446, 97 L.Ed. 469 (1953). Commonwealth v. Murphy, 362 Mass. 542, 551, 289 N.E.2d 571 (1972) (Hennessey, J., concurring). See Commonwealth v. Mahnke, 368 Mass. ---, --- a, 335 N.E.2d 660 (1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 959, 96 S.Ct. 1740, 48 L.Ed.2d 204 (1976). After careful review of the evidence presented at voir dire, we hold that the denial of the motions to suppress the oral statements and the four notes was error.

We recount the evidence. On Haas' second call to the police station, he was told to come home but he was not told what the police had found at his home. At the time Haas arrived home, there were some people, mostly neighbors, milling about the area. The police were inside and outside the house.

The Haas home had been closed to all but police personnel in order to preserve the crime scene and to secure whatever evidence was available. The chief of police knew that murder-suicide had been virtually ruled out by the medical examiner; further he knew that it was the medical examiner's opinion that the three victims had died at approximately eight hours earlier at 3 A.M. When the chief talked with Officer Rauscher and Inspector Surpitski, the chief told one of them not to let Haas into the house but to take Haas to the station, tell Haas what happened to his family and then ask Haas what time he left for work that morning.

While the chief was in the house, Haas, accompanied by Christensen, arrived home. As Haas ran up the driveway, Officer Rauscher put his hand around Haas' back and motioned him to get into the police cruiser. Haas asked if his companion could go along, and the officer said, "Yes." 5 On the way to the station Haas asked if someone would "please tell (me) what's going on?" Officer Rauscher replied, "We will only be a few more minutes, we will be at the police station, we will talk to you there."

At the station, the four men went into the inspector's...

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