Commonwealth v. Harris

Decision Date18 June 2014
Docket NumberSJC–11191.
Citation11 N.E.3d 95,468 Mass. 429
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH v. Laurence Bynum HARRIS.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court


Elizabeth Caddick for the defendant.

Gail M. McKenna, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.



In September, 2011, a jury convicted the defendant, Laurence Bynum Harris, of murder in the first degree on the theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. Represented by new counsel on appeal, the defendant argues error in (1) the denial of his motion to suppress statements; (2) the denial of his motions for required findings of not guilty; (3) the admission of expert rebuttal testimony; and (4) the prosecutor's closing argument. We affirm the order denying the defendant's motion to suppress and affirm his conviction. We discern no basis to exercise our authority pursuant to G.L. c. 278, § 33E.

1. Motion to suppress statements. a. Background and standard of review. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress statements he made to police officers and “all fruits thereof,” claiming, as relevant here, that his Federal and State constitutional rights were violated because his statements had not been voluntarily made. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the motion judge 2 denied the motion.

In reviewing a decision on a motion to suppress, we accept the judge's subsidiary findings of fact absent clear error ‘but conduct an independent review of his ultimate findings and conclusions of law.’ Commonwealth v. Scott, 440 Mass. 642, 646, 801 N.E.2d 233 (2004), quoting Commonwealth v. Jimenez, 438 Mass. 213, 218, 780 N.E.2d 2 (2002). We summarize the judge's findings of fact,3 supplemented with uncontested testimony adduced at the evidentiary hearing. See Commonwealth v. Isaiah I., 448 Mass. 334, 337, 861 N.E.2d 404 (2007), S.C.,450 Mass. 818, 882 N.E.2d 328 (2008), and cases cited.

In the early morning of August 12, 2007, police were alerted to a body found behind a transit terminal on Commercial Street in Brockton. State police Trooper Daniel Harrington was the on-call detective for the district attorney's office and responded to the scene. Brockton police Detective Jacqueline Congdon also responded. The body was identified as the victim. He was found lying in a pool of blood, with apparent head and neck injuries, and was not wearing any pants. Police recovered a pair of sandals and a cellular telephone near his body.

At approximately 6:20 a.m., Trooper Harrington used the cellular telephone to contact “Jari,” who was listed on the device's “call history.” A man answered saying, “Hello,” and then the telephone call was disconnected. A few minutes later, the device rang and Trooper Harrington answered it. He identified himself as a State trooper and said that “something very serious” had happened to the victim and that the police were interested in knowing who the victim had been speaking with recently as indicated on his cellular telephone. The caller, who acknowledged that he was “Jari,” agreed to meet Trooper Harrington at the Brockton police station at 6:45 a.m.

Between 6:45 and 7 a.m., the defendant arrived at the Brockton police station and was led by Detective Congdon to an interview room that was approximately ten feet by ten feet in size and equipped with a wall-mounted video camera. The video camera was activated, and the defendant sat alone inside the room briefly until Trooper Harrington and Detective Congdonentered. After introductions were made, Detective Congdon asked the defendant whether he had finished high school; learning that he had, she produced a printed set of Miranda warnings and waiver form. Detective Congdon read the defendant the Miranda warnings. When asked whether he understood the warnings, the defendant responded affirmatively and signed the waiver form.

The ensuing interview lasted just under three hours and was recorded in its entirety. The defendant explained that he had met the victim through the Internet about one month earlier, and had a relationship with him. The defendant stated that he had planned to meet the victim at the train station the previous night, but arrived at approximately 10:50 P.M. to discover the victim in an automobile with someone else. The defendant telephoned the victim to inform him that he had arrived, and the two met in front of a bus terminal. The victim left and met a man who was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt (that concealed his features) and blue jeans. The defendant admitted he was somewhat jealous and angry at the victim for having been with another in an automobile earlier and for meeting with the man in the red hooded sweatshirt, and because he thought that the victim was going to end their relationship. The defendant stated that he walked home and went to bed. He stated that he tried, however, to telephone the victim after they had separated.

The officers questioned the defendant about certain details of his story. They informed him that they were in the process of obtaining video surveillance tapes of the transit terminal area. The defendant assured them that the tapes would not show anything different from what he had told them. Asked about his life, the defendant stated that he lived in Brockton with his younger sister, worked at a local grocery market, and was anorexic and had had nothing to eat in two days.4 The defendant shared that he was depressed on account of a series of failed relationships, a recent argument with his sister, and the way people treated him based on his appearance, including that he wore hair extensions. When asked whether his eating disorder caused him to have blackouts, the defendant replied that he had suffered blackouts in the past, especially in times of stress or exertion. The defendant said that it was possible that he had suffered a blackout the previous night because he could not recall everything that had occurred.

The defendant stated that he had had a dream or premonition that something had happened and that he would never see the victim again. Although denying any conscious memory of what had occurred, the defendant described seeing the victim with another man, and that the other man must be him, although in his mind it was like he was looking at the event as an outside observer. The defendant described a struggle where the victim was struck in the head with a hammer and then stabbed or slashed in the neck with a sculpting tool. The defendant informed the officers that he carried both items in his backpack, but when he looked inside his backpack earlier that morning, his sculpting tool was missing. The defendant admitted that there had been no other man at the transit terminal earlier. When asked about the victim's pants and personal items, the defendant said he had discarded some of the victim's items as he ran home and gave a description of the locations of the trash receptacles. He added that he took the victim's camera as a remembrance and brought it back to his apartment.

Toward the end of the interview, the defendant executed written waiver forms in which he consented to a police search of his home without a search warrant and to the collection of a sample from swabbing his hands. After questioning had ended, and with Trooper Harrington's permission, the defendant used his cellular telephone to contact his sister. During the call, the defendant stated, “I'm at the police station. I killed my boy friend ... because he was leaving ... I didn't even plan on doing it, it just happened ... I hit him ... [and stabbed him] right in the jugular.” The defendant was placed under arrest at the end of the interview.

The defendant was twenty-one years of age at the time of the interview. He had no prior arrest history or involvement with the police. His mother was engaged in active military service and did not live nearby. The defendant lived with his younger sister in an apartment in Brockton. He worked between twenty and twenty-five hours per week at a local grocery store. The defendant told the officers that he had done well in school and was enrolled for a brief period in a trade school for hair stylists. He professed fluency in English and Spanish, had a working knowledge of Portuguese, and had taught himself some Japanese and Russian. At the outset of the interview, the defendant demonstrated precision in terms of events and especially times. He readily accessed the “call history” on his cellular telephone to provide exact times when he reached out or spoke to the victim.

Concerning his anorexia, the defendant stated that it was a condition of seven years' duration and that he often went days without eating. The defendant stated he had been depressed lately, but had never sought treatment for his depression. He denied any use of illicit drugs or alcohol.

The motion judge took note of the “tone” of the interview. The officers, both in plainclothes, sat at a table with the defendant for most of the questioning (on occasion, one or the other, or in two instances both, left the room). During the interview, there was no police intimidation, shouting, or badgering. The motion judge noted that the officers were almost gentle with the defendant and repeatedly assured him that they understood the pressures he felt as a result of his lifestyle and personal circumstances. At no time during the interview did the detectives engage in any coercive tactics, nor did they threaten or falsely promise anything to the defendant. At times throughout the interview, the defendant became emotional and cried.

b. Discussion. The defendant challenges the motion judge's determination of voluntariness. He argues that his statements to police were not voluntary because he was emotionally unstable, suffered from poor physical and mental health, and lacked experience in the criminal justice system at the time he made the statements. He...

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