Commonwealth v. Huang

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation180 N.E.3d 968
Docket NumberSJC-11575
Decision Date16 February 2022

Susan J. Baronoff, for the defendant.

David D. McGowan, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Rebecca Kiley, Committee for Public Counsel Services, Tatum A. Pritchard, & Steven J. Schwartz, for Committee for Public Counsel Services & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Lowy, Kafker, Wendlandt, & Georges, JJ.


The defendant, Da Lin Huang, was convicted of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty for the killing of his wife, Gin Hua Xu, who was bludgeoned by over forty blows, some of which pierced her skull and fractured her cheekbones, and manually strangled. The couple had separated a few months earlier, and the victim recently had announced her decision to file for divorce. On the day of the killing in late January 2001, she had returned to the couple's apartment apparently believing she would visit their minor children, ages ten and three. The children, however, were not there; earlier, the defendant had made an unusual decision to send the children on an approximately forty-five minute, midwinter walk to visit his brother, who lived about one and one-half miles away. The defendant presented a defense of diminished capacity at trial. Following his conviction, his motion for a new trial was denied by a judge who was not the trial judge.

In this consolidated appeal, the defendant contends that reversal of his conviction is required because the prosecutor improperly exercised a peremptory challenge to strike a male juror, the trial judge abused her discretion in connection with certain evidentiary decisions, the prosecutor made improper statements in his closing argument, and the jury instruction on mental impairment

was insufficient. He also maintains that denial of his motion for a new trial constitutes an abuse of discretion because he is intellectually disabled, and, as such, imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole on him violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Finally, the defendant asks us to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to order a new trial or a reduction in the verdict. We affirm the conviction and the order denying his motion for a new trial and discern no reason to grant relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.1

1. Background. a. Facts. The following facts find support in the evidence presented at trial.

In October 2000, approximately ten years into a marriage that had grown increasingly acrimonious, the victim moved out of the apartment that she and the defendant had shared with their two children -- a ten year old son and a three year old daughter. The victim, who worked outside the home to provide financial support for the family, told the defendant that she was going to file for divorce.

The couple had immigrated to the United States from China in 1993. They lived next door to the defendant's brother, who lived with his wife, two children, and a nephew; the defendant's other brother lived about one and one-half miles away with his wife and children.

Since a car accident in 1999 in which he sustained injuries to his neck and back, the defendant had been the primary caregiver for the couple's children, providing them with meals, assisting his son with homework, and taking care of the apartment. The defendant's niece, who lived next door and saw him near daily, testified to her observations of the defendant taking care of the children, doing chores, and cooking meals. One of the defendant's nephews, who also saw him daily, testified that the defendant shopped for groceries, cooked, and checked in on the nephew. Neither the niece nor the nephew observed anything unusual about the defendant's intelligence or memory.

Over the years, the defendant and the victim argued about the defendant's daily gambling habit. The defendant's son testified that when the victim refused to give the defendant funds for gambling, the defendant would raise his voice, speak to the victim disrespectfully, and sometimes use physical force to get the money, several times shoving her and causing her to cry. The defendant's nephew also testified that the defendant would take money from the victim using physical force, raise his voice, and shove her. The son and nephew intervened on occasion, physically blocking the defendant from striking the victim.2

In December 2000, approximately one month before the killing, the defendant and the victim met with the victim's lawyer to discuss whether the defendant would agree to a proposed joint separation agreement. Assisted by an interpreter, the victim's lawyer reviewed the separation agreement with the defendant. The lawyer testified that the defendant did not speak much during the meeting, but he apparently understood what was going on. The meeting ended when the defendant walked out, refusing to sign the agreement.

Approximately one week before the victim was killed, police officers responded to a report of a domestic dispute at the couple's apartment.3 An argument between the victim and the defendant had arisen over the care of the couple's son. One of the responding officers, who had spoken to the defendant, testified that he did not notice anything unusual about him at that time.

The killing occurred in late January 2001. That day, around 11 A.M. , the victim's friend, with whom she normally carpooled to work, drove her to the Chinatown train station so that she could visit her children at the defendant's apartment. Earlier that winter morning, however, the defendant had made the unusual decision to send the couple's children on a walk to the home of his older brother, about forty-five minutes away; he asked his nephew to accompany them.

At around 9 or 10 P.M. , the defendant's sister-in-law sent the children home; she called the defendant's home telephone twice, but there was no answer. The defendant's niece and nephew, who lived next door, went to check on the defendant and were unable to open the front door of the apartment. The defendant's niece observed blood on and around the door. The landlord, who lived upstairs and had a key to the defendant's apartment, unlocked the door but could not open it; it was chained from the inside, and there was something on the floor behind the door, blocking it.

Police officers and emergency medical technicians responded to the scene. They observed blood smeared on the apartment door and the adjacent walls. After removing the door chain, they entered the apartment. Directly behind the door, they found the victim's body in a state of rigor mortis.

The victim had been badly beaten. Her body was bruised, her shirt and bra had been pulled up, and her pants pulled down. There was a long, metal object protruding from her vagina, which later was determined to be an eighteen-inch knife-sharpening rod with a six-inch handle. Hair-covered pliers lay on her stomach.4 The victim and the surrounding walls and door were splattered with blood, and the victim's socks were covered with blood and hair. The back door to the apartment was locked from the inside with two separate locks.

In the bedroom, officers found the defendant in a bed, unconscious and not breathing; he was covered in the victim's blood,5 and a cell phone and a bottle of alcohol lay next to him. Two bloodstained pill bottle lids were also recovered from the bedroom. From the kitchen, officers retrieved five empty prescription pill bottles bearing the defendant's name on the label.6 Paramedics administered Narcan

to the defendant, after which he began to breathe on his own.

An autopsy of the victim showed that she had sustained at least forty-six laceration wounds to the head, face, and forehead, several of which went through the skin to the bone. She had facial bruising and multiple fractures to the skull

and cheekbones. Some lacerations on the victim's forehead matched the end of the pliers. Beneath her scalp, she had a hemorrhage, the diffuse nature of which indicated that she had been alive when the multiple wounds to her head, face, and forehead were inflicted. She had defensive wounds on the back of her hands. Her neck had contusions, four fractures, and hemorrhaging caused by blunt trauma or compression. The medical examiner concluded that the cause of death was blunt head trauma and manual strangulation. Additionally, there were lacerations and cuts through her nipples, and penetration into her vagina and bowel with the knife-sharpening rod, each of which appeared to have been inflicted after death.

b. Defendant's case. At trial, the defendant asserted a defense based on diminished capacity.7 Clinical forensic psychologist Jeffery Long opined that the defendant had posttraumatic stress disorder

and major depressive disorder so severe that he became psychotic at times, and that the defendant suffered from several psychiatric issues that "collectively impaired his ability to premeditate killing his wife, [to intend] to kill his wife, and [to understand] that his actions would lead to her death." On cross-examination, Long acknowledged that he had not been aware of some details of the killing; he testified that he might reconsider his opinion if he were to learn new details, such as that the victim was manually strangled,8 and that the front door was locked with both a deadbolt and security chain.9

Dr. Rebecca Brendel, a psychiatrist who examined the defendant seven times between 2006 and 2010, concluded that it was "highly unlikely that [the defendant] was able to form specific intent at the time of the alleged offense," and that there was "significant uncertainty that [the defendant] was able to premeditate at the time of the alleged offense." In addition, she testified that the defendant had limited cognitive functioning, perhaps attributable to the head injury

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