Commonwealth v. Kapaia, SJC-12454

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtLOWY, J.
Citation490 Mass. 787,197 N.E.3d 867
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Franklin KAPAIA.
Decision Date17 November 2022
Docket NumberSJC-12454

Andrew S. Crouch, Boston, for the defendant.

Mary Nguyen, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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


After a jury trial in the Superior Court, the defendant, Franklin Kapaia, was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. He appeals from his conviction, arguing that (1) there was insufficient evidence to convict him, (2) errors in the Commonwealth's opening statement and closing argument warrant reversal, and (3) we should reduce the verdict of murder in the first degree pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E. We affirm.

Background. We recite the facts the jury could have found in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, reserving some details for later discussion of specific issues. See Commonwealth v. Brown, 490 Mass. 171, 172, 189 N.E.3d 654 (2022), citing Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 677, 393 N.E.2d 370 (1979).

The victim, Eric Dillard, lived with his girlfriend, Helena Ellis, and their three children in an apartment located in a multiunit building at the intersection of Montello Street and Lawrence Street in Brockton. At the time of the shooting, the victim's cousin, Michael Myers, also was staying at the apartment. The victim's apartment was on the first floor, and a small hallway led from the apartment to the building's Lawrence Street entrance. The victim sold "crack" cocaine and marijuana, while Ellis sold marijuana to her friends, including Shauna Matthews.

Matthews was the defendant's girlfriend. At the time of the shooting, Matthews lived in an apartment in Brockton and the defendant's longtime friend, Michael McNicholas, lived next door. The defendant and McNicholas had been acquainted for over a decade by the time of trial. McNicholas and the defendant would "h[a]ng out" and smoke marijuana together, often at Matthews's apartment. Additionally, McNicholas would buy marijuana from Roy Mitchell, who lived in the same apartment building as the victim and Ellis. While Mitchell never had sold marijuana to the defendant, Mitchell had met the defendant and had observed him to have light facial hair, specifically, "a little mustache."

On March 6, 2013, the defendant and McNicholas smoked marijuana together during the afternoon. While the two were smoking, the defendant told McNicholas that he had "to go run a mission" but did not provide McNicholas with further details.

Later that evening, the defendant and Matthews drove around looking for marijuana. They stopped at two places near the victim's apartment where the defendant previously had bought marijuana. The first stop proved unsuccessful. At the second stop, the defendant got out of Matthews's car and walked away. According to Matthews, the defendant, who is a dark-skinned man, was wearing a black, puffy coat and a winter hat. Matthews was "not sure" whether the defendant had a mustache on the night of the shooting.

That evening, the victim and Ellis were home with their three children and Myers. At 5:45 P.M. , Matthews sent a text message to Ellis stating that she was "going to come grab a bag" of marijuana. Ellis responded to Matthews's message at 6:02 P.M. , stating that she was out of marijuana. The doorbell to the apartment then rang almost immediately after the exchange of text messages. The victim opened the door, entered the hallway, and closed the door behind him. The sounds of a struggle caught the attention of both Ellis and Myers. Ellis opened the door, and as a result, both she and Myers could see into the hallway. Ellis saw "a gun pulled out" and described "a lot of bullets flying." She did not see the face or body of the person holding the firearm nor how many people were in the hallway.1 Myers2 saw a tall "dark skinned male" who "may have had a mustache," wearing a black "hoodie," standing over the victim and holding a gun. The shooter made eye contact with Myers, looked back at the victim, and shot the victim again.

Wounded, the victim crawled back into his apartment. He was gasping for air and told Ellis to call 911. Ellis did so, and emergency personnel were dispatched to the apartment at 6:04 P.M. They arrived at the scene a few minutes later and found the victim lying on the kitchen floor with multiple gunshot wounds; he was not breathing and had a faint pulse. He died soon thereafter.

When the defendant returned to Matthews's car, "[h]e just had a look of just aggravation" and his nose was "a little flared." Matthews told the defendant that Ellis had responded to the text message indicating that she was out of marijuana. Later that night, the defendant again smoked marijuana with McNicholas during which McNicholas told the defendant that Mitchell's "neighbor got shot." At that point, the defendant told McNicholas that he had killed Mitchell's neighbor.

An autopsy revealed that the victim sustained a significant number of gunshot wounds to both the front and back of his body, specifically, three graze wounds, nine entrance wounds, and six exit wounds. The gunshot wounds were determined to be the victim's cause of death. The defendant was on probation at the time of the shooting and wore a global positioning system (GPS) ankle monitor. As part of the investigation, police obtained GPS data from the defendant's ankle monitor, which was admitted at trial. The evidence at trial showed that the location data from the device was ninety percent accurate within a radius from thirty to thirty-six feet of the point that appears on the map. The GPS data showed the defendant moving toward the victim's apartment building just prior to the shooting. The data then showed the defendant stationary at the intersection where the victim's apartment was located at 6:02 P.M. The data from one minute later showed the defendant traveling away from the victim's apartment building at three miles per hour and then twenty miles per hour.3

Discussion. 1. Sufficiency of the evidence. The defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. The defendant had moved for a required finding of not guilty at the close of the Commonwealth's case, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of murder in the first degree. The motion was denied.4 He reaffirms this argument on appeal, asserting that the admitted evidence is insufficient to prove his identity as the shooter. Specifically, he argues that inconsistent descriptions of the shooter and himself on the night of the shooting, the imprecision of the GPS data, and the inconsistencies and unreliability of McNicholas's and Ellis's testimony prevented the Commonwealth from proving his identity as the shooter. We disagree.

"In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, we consider ‘whether, after viewing the evidence the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’ " Commonwealth v. Davis, 487 Mass. 448, 462, 168 N.E.3d 294 (2021), quoting Latimore, 378 Mass. at 677, 393 N.E.2d 370. Ultimately, "[t]he denial of a motion for a required finding of not guilty will be affirmed if the Commonwealth's evidence, together with reasonable inferences from that evidence, is sufficient to persuade a rational jury of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" (quotation and citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Paige, 488 Mass. 677, 679, 177 N.E.3d 149 (2021). "Proof of the essential elements of the crime may be based on reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence, ... and the inferences a jury may draw need only be reasonable and possible and need not be necessary or inescapable" (quotation and citation omitted).

Commonwealth v. West, 487 Mass. 794, 800, 169 N.E.3d 1183 (2021). "The relevant question is whether the evidence would permit a jury to find guilt, not whether the evidence requires such a finding" (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Norris, 483 Mass. 681, 685, 136 N.E.3d 665 (2019).

"At the time of the defendant's trial, to convict a defendant of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, the Commonwealth was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed an unlawful killing with malice aforethought,[5 ] ... and with extreme atrocity or cruelty...." Commonwealth v. Melendez, 490 Mass. 648, 665, 194 N.E.3d 179 (2022).

Here, there was overwhelming evidence that the shooting at issue was an intentional killing committed with malice aforethought and with extreme atrocity or cruelty. In brief, the evidence showed that the victim was killed by repeated gunshots to both the front and back of his body while he was in the hallway of his apartment after the assailant rang the doorbell and the victim stepped into the hallway. Moreover, during the shooting, the assailant looked one of the witnesses in the eye and then turned to the already-wounded victim and shot him again. See Commonwealth v. Bonner, 489 Mass. 268, 276, 182 N.E.3d 311 (2022) ("conviction of murder in first degree on theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty requires evidence that defendant caused victim's death by method that surpassed cruelty inherent in taking life"). See also Commonwealth v. Robinson, 482 Mass. 741, 744-747, 128 N.E.3d 50 (2019).

As to the shooter's identity, the issue on which the defendant focuses his argument on appeal, the evidence that the defendant was the shooter was compelling. And while the pieces of evidence outlined infra might not individually "be sufficient to sustain a conviction, together they formed a ‘mosaic’ of evidence such that the jury could [reasonably] conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was the shooter" (citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Jones, 477 Mass. 307, 317, 77 N.E.3d 278 (2017...

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