Commonwealth v. MacCormack

Decision Date09 May 2023
Docket NumberSJC-13022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Heard: November 7, 2022.

Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on October 31, 2017. The case was tried before Mary K. Ames, J.

Stephen Paul Maidman for the defendant.

Sarah Montgomery Lewis, Assistant District Attorney (Ian Polumbaum Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

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


A Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, see G. L. c. 265, § 1, in the killing of his wife, Vanessa MacCormack, by blunt force trauma and strangulation. On appeal, the defendant argues that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction. He also contends that the police investigation focused exclusively on him, rather than pursuing other leads, and that the judge abused her discretion in permitting the introduction of certain evidence that the defendant argues was used improperly as propensity evidence. In addition, the defendant asks us to exercise our extraordinary authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to direct the entry of a verdict of not guilty or to order a new trial. Having carefully reviewed the record, we discern no error that would warrant vacating the conviction, or ordering a new trial, and no reason to grant relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

1. Facts.

We recite the facts the jury could have found, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth. Commonwealth v. Latimore, 378 Mass. 671, 676-677 (1979).

The defendant and the victim were married in August of 2015, and purchased a house in Revere a few months later. Both of their families lived nearby and were intimately involved in the couple's lives. At the time of the victim's killing in September of 2017, the defendant's mother was living with the defendant and the victim, as she had been since the previous April. Ordinarily, the defendant already would have left for work by the time his mother would wake up at 6 A.M. The victim was in daily contact with members of her family, calling and sending text messages to them multiple times a day, and to family and friends, the victim and the defendant appeared to be happy.

Beginning in early 2017, however, issues arose stemming from the defendant's financial improprieties, which the victim suspected were to fund his growing use of drugs. In February 2017, the victim realized that approximately $6,000 had been taken from her bank account. Evidence at trial pointed to the defendant: he had forged and cashed at least two checks to himself, each for $350, from the victim's account, and there was no evidence of third-party access. That same month, the victim realized that her wedding ring was missing. The couple purchased a replacement, but it also went missing two weeks later. When the couple called police to investigate a potential robbery, officers found no signs of forced entry. The defendant mentioned to officers that the baby monitor had been "hacked," and a small basement window was open. Police determined that the window was too small for anyone to have entered through it.

The second ring was never found. The defendant began frequenting local pawn shops, taking out loans on gift cards and other jewelry, including his wedding ring, and then defaulting on the loans. Unbeknownst to his wife, the defendant repeatedly opened, overdrew, and closed bank accounts throughout 2017. By the summer, the defendant was spending between $100 and $400 on cocaine and steroids weekly.

On July 28, 2017, the victim sent a text message to the defendant saying that he was ruining their marriage and that she was unhappy and furious. The defendant tried to assure her that everything would be fixed, but the victim said that she knew the defendant was doing something suspicious, as she had seen a notification on his cellular telephone from someone she knew to be a drug seller, and the defendant had attempted to take out a loan without her knowledge. The victim continued to send the defendant a series of angry and indignant text messages, full of profanity, throughout the night. Text messages over the following month indicated that the victim's frustration with the defendant continued to grow.[1]

On August 31, 2017, the defendant and the victim got into another argument. The victim sent a text message to the defendant saying that she was going to sell the house and find a divorce lawyer and that she could not stop thinking about the possibility of divorce. The following day, the defendant responded that the victim was "crazy" and that he would not sign anything to sell the house or to obtain a divorce. On September 2, the victim continued to express her anger to the defendant in text messages, and the following day, she demanded answers from the defendant about times when she felt that he had lied to her, including instances of missing cash, mysterious bank withdrawals, and her missing credit card.

On September 8, 2017, the victim sent the defendant a message about additional money that was missing from their bank account, and accused him of creating their financial problems because of his drug habit and only saying he would improve things and repay her missing money in order to avoid a divorce. The next day, the victim again told the defendant that she was unhappy with him and their marriage. These later messages were in response to the defendant's accrual of hundreds of dollars in unpaid parking tickets for the victim's father's sport utility vehicle (SUV), which the defendant had been using regularly since February.

On September 22, 2017, the victim checked into her gym at 6:36 P.M. Later, after returning home, she had an audio-video call with her parents so they could say goodnight to her daughter. At 8:17 P.M., the defendant sent the victim a photograph of his new haircut and they both called each other. At 8:58 P.M., the victim sent the defendant a text message asking where he was.

The defendant ultimately spent the evening in the basement of the house, where he intended to sleep. He devoted his time that evening to browsing Internet escort listings advertising sex for money.

a. Events of September 23, 2017.

In the early morning hours of September 23, 2017, the defendant sent a text message to an escort and arranged to meet her at 10 A.M. on Route 1 in Peabody. He continued to peruse similar listings until after 3 A.M.

The defendant's mother testified that she left the house at around 8:30 A.M. At 8:28 A.M., surveillance camera footage showed the defendant driving toward a liquor store at the end of the street, circling it, and returning home at 8:35 A.M. During this brief trip, the victim called the defendant's cellular telephone twice. Throughout the morning, the defendant made a series of telephone calls to his friend James Caruso, the first at around 10 A.M. Caruso lived in Saugus, which is north of Revere. Earlier that week, the defendant and Caruso had discussed the defendant going to Caruso's house to help finish some work on the house. Surveillance video footage and cell site location information (CSLI) for the defendant's telephone showed that he did not leave his house again until 12:49 P.M., when he drove away with his daughter in the SUV. By that time, according to the medical examiner, the victim was dead. The defendant had killed the victim and left her body on the floor of their bedroom.

After leaving the house, the defendant called Caruso at 12:54 P.M. He told Caruso that he had taken the baby for a walk and was going to see if the victim was home from the gym before heading to Caruso's house. Approximately four minutes later, as he was driving south on Route 107 toward Revere, the defendant called the victim at 12:58 P.M., and the call went directly to voicemail.[2] He then sent the victim two text messages saying that he would be going to visit Caruso and asking why she was not responding, respectively. The defendant drove a meandering route through Revere, and then drove north on Route 107 toward

Saugus; he arrived at Caruso's house, a five-minute drive from his own house, at 1:30 P.M. As he was completing the work on Caruso's home, the defendant called his mother-in-law. He told her that the victim had not been home when he left the house and that she was probably at the gym. He said that he had been at Caruso's house for approximately one hour with the baby and would be leaving in about fifteen minutes. After ending the call, the defendant mentioned to Caruso that he had not heard from the victim since she left for the gym that morning. The defendant seemed concerned and said that it was unusual not to have heard from her, as the two usually spoke while the victim was at the gym. The defendant called his home telephone for six seconds, and then again called the victim's cellular telephone. The victim's mother called the defendant again at around 2:10 P.M.; he said that he was still at Caruso's house, and would be leaving in about twenty minutes.

The defendant left Caruso's house a few minutes later. He bought gasoline in Winthrop, drove to a pharmacy in the East Boston section of Boston, and then met his drug supplier in East Boston, where he purchased cocaine. The defendant took an indirect route back to his house in Revere, approaching it from Saugus to the north, rather than from Caruso's house to the south. During the drive, he again spoke with his in-laws concerning the victim's whereabouts.

The victim's mother called the defendant again at around 3:30 P.M., as the defendant was pulling into his driveway. The defendant remained on the telephone with her as he...

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