Commonwealth v. Dawson, SJC-13213

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation490 Mass. 521,192 N.E.3d 1052
Docket NumberSJC-13213
Decision Date24 August 2022

490 Mass. 521
192 N.E.3d 1052



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Bristol.

Argued March 7, 2022
Decided August 24, 2022

Suzanne Renaud, for the defendant.

Shoshana E. Stern, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Anthony D. Gulluni, District Attorney, & John A. Wendel, Assistant District Attorney, for district attorney for the Hampden district & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Budd, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, Kafker, Wendlandt, & Georges, JJ.


On August 10, 2018, the defendant and his friend, Christopher Dunton, attempted to rob a taxicab driver in New Bedford. After the cabdriver brought the men to the location they had requested, Dunton choked the cabdriver from behind while demanding money. At the same time, the defendant pressed a knife to the cabdriver's side. The cabdriver managed to escape from the vehicle, spun around wielding a previously concealed handgun, and

192 N.E.3d 1055

shot and killed Dunton. Based on these facts, a

490 Mass. 522

grand jury returned indictments charging the defendant with involuntary manslaughter for the death of his accomplice and other crimes.

In this appeal from a conditional guilty plea, we consider whether an individual may be charged with involuntary manslaughter where the individual wantonly or recklessly commits a felony, and an accomplice is killed by the victim of that offense. It has been well settled in our homicide jurisprudence for more than 150 years that the Commonwealth is precluded from charging a defendant with the crime of felony-murder for the death of an individual who is killed by someone resisting an underlying felony. See Commonwealth v. Campbell, 7 Allen 541, 547 (1863). The defendant contends that the common-law limitation on homicide liability, set forth in Campbell, supra, extends to the crime of wanton or reckless involuntary manslaughter. In the alternative, he maintains that the Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence to the grand jury to support an indictment for involuntary manslaughter.

For the following reasons, we conclude that Campbell and its progeny do not preclude an indictment for wanton or reckless involuntary manslaughter where the deceased is killed by someone resisting a felony. We conclude as well that the evidence presented to the grand jury was sufficient to support the indictment. Accordingly, we affirm the denial of the defendant's motion to dismiss.1

1. Background. a. Prior proceedings. On September 27, 2018, a grand jury returned indictments charging the defendant with involuntary manslaughter, armed assault with intent to rob, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and assault and battery. The indictment charging involuntary manslaughter alleged that the defendant "did intentionally engage in conduct (an [a]rmed [a]ssault with intent to rob Albert Miguel, a cab driver) that was wanton and reckless and by his intentional conduct, created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another person, and by such intentional participation in this conduct, caused the death of Christopher Dunton."

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the indictment for involuntary manslaughter due to a lack of probable cause; he attached to the motion a transcript of the grand jury proceedings.

490 Mass. 523

After a nonevidentiary hearing, a Superior Court judge denied the motion. The defendant then entered a conditional guilty plea to the charge of involuntary manslaughter, preserving his right to appeal that charge on the ground of a lack of probable cause. See Mass. R. Crim. P. 12 (b) (6), as appearing in 482 Mass. 1501 (2019); Commonwealth v. Gomez, 480 Mass. 240, 252, 104 N.E.3d 636 (2018). He also pleaded guilty to the remaining charges. The appeal was entered in the Appeals Court, and we granted the Commonwealth's application for direct appellate review.

b. The shooting. The grand jury could have found the following. On August 10, 2018, at around 1 A.M. , Miguel, driving his taxicab, picked up the defendant and Dunton on Cottage Street in New Bedford. Dunton sat behind Miguel in the rear passenger's seat on the driver's side; the defendant sat next to Dunton. The two passengers asked to go to an address on Bentley Street in New Bedford.

192 N.E.3d 1056

During the short ride, the defendant, Dunton, and Miguel discussed a recent New Bedford crime wave. They "were talking about what's been happening in the city because the guy that just killed the guy on Cottage, the shooting on Grinnell and Purchase. There was also another guy shot in the back." The three men reached a consensus that the "city's all fucked up." The conversation about issues with crime put Miguel at ease; he thought he generally noticed warning signs, but he did not detect any "red flags" from his passengers and believed that they were "being cool guys, just normal dudes."

When they reached the stated destination, Miguel placed the taxicab in park and turned on the interior dome light. He then informed the passengers that the fare was five dollars. The defendant asked Miguel for change for a fifty dollar bill. For his own safety, Miguel only carried twenty dollars when working a nighttime shift; he informed the defendant, "I only carry enough to break a [twenty] because this city's crazy and, you know, you know, cabdrivers get robbed all the time." Miguel offered to drive the defendant and Dunton to a nearby gasoline station to get change. He then heard the defendant shuffling his hand around in his pocket "like he was looking for money."

Without warning, Dunton reached over the driver's seat and wrapped both arms around Miguel's neck in a choke hold.2 Miguel struggled to breathe. Dunton shouted at him to turn off the

490 Mass. 524

interior light and hand over his money. Brandishing a three-inch tactical-style knife, the defendant also demanded money. He pressed the blade against the right side of Miguel's body. Miguel reported, "[The defendant] actually only got me a little bit, but he was trying to puncture me ... like he was trying to get me in the stomach." Dunton then urged the defendant to "shank" Miguel, yelling, "[J]ust stab this fucking, nigga, you know, fucking kill him," and "[K]ill this motherfucker." The two robbers "hyp[ed] each other up," exclaiming, "[W]e're going to do it."

Miguel thought that he was going to die. As he explained, "[W]e're bouncing all around [the taxicab] ... and he [Dunton] got me and his friend [the defendant] is really trying to stab me." Headlights from an oncoming vehicle then illuminated the taxicab, causing a moment of distraction. Miguel seized the opportunity to attempt to get away from the robbers. With one arm still around Miguel's throat, Dunton warned, "[D]on't move or I'll fucking kill you." Miguel managed to break free from the choke hold, got out of the taxicab using his knee to open the door, spun around, and drew a previously concealed handgun from a holster. He ordered the robbers to freeze. The defendant left the taxicab, while Dunton continued to move around in the rear seat. Fearing that Dunton was armed, and unable to see his hands, Miguel fired into the rear of the taxicab three times, hitting Dunton. When Miguel fired the shots, the defendant was approximately five to eight feet away from the vehicle. He ran up the street and out of sight, and he was not present when emergency responders arrived a few minutes later.

Miguel contacted his dispatcher by radio, telling him that he had been robbed and had shot someone, and that the dispatcher should summon help; he then called 911. The call was received at 1:12 A.M. Miguel told the responding officers that he had shot someone trying to rob

192 N.E.3d 1057

him and asked them to help Dunton, who was lying on the ground, bleeding, and making a "noise." The officers observed a three-inch scratch on Miguel's side. Dunton was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:48 A.M.

When the defendant fled the taxicab, he left his cellular telephone behind. While investigating the scene, police found the telephone; they subsequently learned its owner was the defendant, whom Miguel was able to identify from a photographic array. The defendant was arrested a few days later.

490 Mass. 525

During questioning at the New Bedford police station, the defendant corroborated Miguel's account of the incident, other than maintaining that he only had pretended to have a knife. The defendant described the events by saying that he had planned to pay the fare if Miguel did not hand over the money that he and Dunton demanded, but once Dunton placed Miguel in a choke hold, "it escalated from there."

2. Discussion. a. Liability for involuntary manslaughter. At issue in this case is the existence of common-law homicide liability for the death of an individual killed by someone resisting a felony. See generally Commonwealth v. Duke, 489...

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