Com. v. Martin

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation427 Mass. 816,696 N.E.2d 904
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH v. Christina MARTIN.
Decision Date15 July 1998

Page 904

696 N.E.2d 904
427 Mass. 816

Christina MARTIN.
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts,
Argued May 6, 1998.
Decided July 15, 1998.

Page 905

Mary O'Neil, Special Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Kevin J. Mahoney, Cambridge, for defendant.


WILKINS, Chief Justice.

In November, 1992, a jury convicted the [427 Mass. 817] defendant of murder in the first degree of Richard M. Alfredo. The appeal was entered here in January, 1995. 1 On October 18, 1995, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial which a single justice of this court ordered transferred to the Superior Court for disposition. The trial judge had retired, and another judge held an evidentiary hearing on the motion in May, 1996.

On June 30, 1997, based on his conclusions stated in a thorough memorandum which considered the evidence at trial and the evidence presented to him, the judge allowed the new trial motion. He did so because of the "effect of the Commonwealth's failure to timely disclose ... evidence [to defense counsel] combined with defense counsel's failure to present a competent rebuttal of the prosecution's case for cause-of-death." The Commonwealth's appeal from the allowance of the motion for a new trial is now before us.

The Commonwealth's theory at trial was that the defendant put LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in food served to Alfredo, who had severe heart disease, and that he died as a result of heart disease and acute LSD intoxication, which caused an abnormal, fast heart beat. The motion judge determined that the defense counsel had been ineffective, in a constitutional sense, in not adequately challenging the Commonwealth's evidence that LSD was found during post mortem tests of Alfredo and that the Commonwealth failed adequately to disclose test results that did not confirm, indeed in part tended to disprove, the presence of LSD in Alfredo's body.

Generally, we consider whether a motion judge committed a significant error of law or other abuse of discretion in allowing a defendant's motion for a new trial. Commonwealth v. Grace, 397 Mass. 303, 307, 491 N.E.2d 246 (1986). By that standard, the issue in this case is whether the judge erred in ruling, on his largely unchallenged findings, that the defendant's trial counsel was ineffective, that the Commonwealth prejudicially failed to provide specific information that it was directed to provide, and that consequentially the defendant was entitled to a new trial. 2

Page 906

We summarize facts that the jury could have found, with [427 Mass. 818] particular emphasis on the evidence concerning whether LSD could have been a factor in Alfredo's death. The defendant and Alfredo, who was sixty-one years old at his death, had been living together in Westport for many years. There was evidence that she intended to kill Alfredo. The defendant knew that Alfredo suffered from coronary artery disease. She thought drugs would kill him, given his health condition. She purchased what she thought were drugs from local teenagers and told them that she intended to use them to kill her boy friend. Showing what the motion judge described as "common sense and an enterprising spirit," the teenagers sold her bogus substitutes. Ultimately, however, the defendant apparently succeeded in purchasing real drugs. She thought she had purchased mescaline, although she may in fact have purchased LSD, which the evidence indicated is often sold as mescaline.

The Commonwealth's theory was that the defendant caused Alfredo's death by putting LSD in his jello. The defendant told relatives and others that she had put mescaline in the jello and had given it to the deceased. The defendant's daughter Teasha, who was fourteen at the time of Alfredo's death and almost eighteen at the time of trial, testified as a defense witness that it was she who had put the drug in the jello and had given it to Alfredo. At the last minute, according to Teasha and the defendant, the defendant backed out of the plan, and Teasha [427 Mass. 819] alone administered the substance to Alfredo. There was testimony from both Teasha and the defendant that Alfredo died shortly after eating the jello. Teasha testified that Alfredo had sexually abused her.

A doctor concluded that Alfredo had died of an apparent myocardial infarction. After suspicion had focused on the defendant and thirty-one days after Alfredo's death, his body was exhumed. The body had been embalmed. Water had entered his casket.

The scientific evidence at trial of the cause of death was as follows. A pathologist testified that he performed an autopsy on the exhumed body. Alfredo had severe heart disease and had had a coronary bypass procedure. His heart was enlarged. He had had at least one heart attack more than six months earlier but was not having one when he died. The pathologist took samples of body fluids that had apparently not mixed with embalming fluid. He submitted half the samples to the State police toxicology laboratory and half to a private laboratory. He testified, without objection, that the laboratory reports indicated the presence of LSD in all of the samples. He testified that Alfredo died as a result of a combination of heart disease and acute LSD intoxication that caused increased stress on the diseased heart.

On cross-examination, the pathologist testified that he was "comfortable" with his opinion on the cause of death, although he had never before seen LSD cause death and that no one has established the toxic level of LSD. Defense counsel did not ask what tests had been conducted, nor did he establish that, as the motion judge found, substances other than LSD could have produced positive test results in the screening tests that the pathologist conducted. 3

A clinical chemist, part owner of the private laboratory to [427 Mass. 820] which samples had been sent, testified next. Tests of the samples that the laboratory received did not disclose

Page 907

mescaline but did disclose a compound found in cold relief medicine, which itself can cause an increased heart beat. The laboratory next used a radioimmunoassay (RIA) to test for LSD, because it is often sold as mescaline. The chemist said that all three samples tested were positive for LSD. The witness testified further that, on receipt of a positive result in a RIA test, one should conduct a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) test. He added, without objection, that samples were sent to another laboratory for that test and its reports confirmed the presence of LSD. 4

A chemist employed by the Massachusetts State police crime laboratory testified that he had tested the samples for mescaline and found none. He then used an RIA test to screen certain samples for LSD and obtained a positive result. He then testified that: "I attempted to confirm the presence of LSD using a separate different test[ ] known as gas chromatography mass spectrometry on the autopsy samples. I was not able to confirm the initial screening test that I obtained using radioimmunoassay." On cross-examination, the chemist testified that, in his experience, a positive RIA test result "indicates the real presence of LSD in the sample." He then added incorrectly that the failure to confirm the presence of LSD using GCMS indicated simply that one test was positive and one was negative. 5

Next, a cardiologist testified, without objection, that the toxicologic examination "showed the presence of LSD on positive screens in all of the fluids and organs that were examined." He concluded that "the combined effects of the LSD in [Alfredo] acting upon his severe heart disease caused his death" because of a cardiac arrest. On cross-examination, he testified that he had never seen a death caused by LSD...

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