Commonwealth v. Ramos

Citation490 Mass. 818,198 N.E.3d 437
Decision Date28 November 2022
Docket NumberSJC-12678
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Jose RAMOS.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

490 Mass. 818
198 N.E.3d 437

COMMONWEALTH
v.
Jose RAMOS.

SJC-12678

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden.

Argued April 6, 2022
Decided November 28, 2022


Michael Tumposky, Boston, for the defendant.

Lee Baker, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

BUDD, C.J.

490 Mass. 819
198 N.E.3d 439

The defendant, Jose Ramos, was convicted of murder in the first degree for killing Luis Sanchez. The defendant subsequently filed a motion under G. L. c. 278A (c. 278A) seeking deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing of fingernail clippings collected from the victim's body during an autopsy to support his contention that the victim was the first aggressor and that the defendant acted in self-defense. After a hearing, a judge of the Superior Court denied the motion on the grounds that the defendant had failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the requested testing had the potential to result in evidence material to his defense and (2) a reasonably effective attorney would have sought this testing. See G. L. c. 278A, §§ 3 (b ) (5) (iv), 7 (b ) (3)-(4). Before us is the defendant's appeal from that ruling. For the reasons discussed infra, we reverse.

Overview of G. L. c. 278A. Pursuant to c. 278A, an individual "whose liberty has been ... restrained as the result of a conviction" of a criminal offense in the courts of the Commonwealth, and who "asserts factual innocence of the crime for which [he or she] has been convicted," may file a motion requesting postconviction testing. G. L. c. 278A, § 2. If the motion meets certain threshold requirements, see G. L. c. 278A, § 3 (b ) ( § 3 [b ]),1 a hearing will be held where the defendant must establish by a preponderance of the evidence each of the factors set forth in G. L. c. 278A, § 7 (b ) ( § 7 [b ]),2 including that the

198 N.E.3d 440

"requested

490 Mass. 820

analysis has the potential to result in evidence that is material to the moving party's identification as the perpetrator of the crime," and that the evidence has not been analyzed previously for one of five reasons enumerated in § 3 (b ) (5).3 See G. L. c. 278A, § 7 (b ) (4).

"If such a showing is made, the court shall allow the requested forensic or scientific analysis, the results of which may be used to support a motion for a new trial." Randolph v. Commonwealth, 488 Mass. 1, 4, 173 N.E.3d 317 (2021), quoting Commonwealth v. Williams, 481 Mass. 799, 801-802, 119 N.E.3d 1171 (2019).

Background. 1. Evidence at trial. We summarize the facts of the underlying criminal case, reserving certain details for later discussion of the issues.

On the evening of March 10, 2015, the defendant and the victim were staying at a homeless shelter in Springfield. At approximately 6 P.M. , the defendant approached a shelter staff member in the intake office and told her that the victim "was giving him a lot of attitude" and that "somebody needed to speak to [the victim]." The defendant also said that he believed the victim was under the influence of alcohol. The staff member informed the defendant that she would have another staff member assess the situation. Meanwhile, the victim was observing this

490 Mass. 821

conversation through the intake office's window, which faced the hallway, and when the defendant left the office, the victim followed him. Both men walked toward the stairs to the basement dormitory where they both lived while at the shelter.

Shortly thereafter, the defendant and the victim ascended the stairwell from the basement and walked along the hallway toward the exit to the parking lot. Another staff member, who had been sent to check on them, observed that both the defendant and the victim appeared to be hurried and "hostile" as they ascended the stairs. This second staff member went to the intake office and told the first staff member that the defendant and the victim were going outside and that he thought they were going to fight. Both staff members went outside, along with a police officer who was stationed at the shelter. When they arrived outside, they saw the defendant and the victim "coming apart" from one another and "squared off," and the defendant had a knife in his hand. The officer told the defendant to drop the knife, and the defendant did so. The victim was staggering and bleeding from his torso, and he fell down. The officer and the two staff members, however, did not see the defendant stab

198 N.E.3d 441

the victim or the events immediately preceding the stabbing.

Two witnesses who already were outside the shelter at the time of the altercation between the defendant and the victim gave conflicting testimony. One witness testified that she saw two men arguing and fighting in the parking lot. She saw the defendant make punching gestures toward the victim approximately ten to fifteen times as the victim attempted to block the blows. She neither saw anything in the victim's hands nor saw him throw any punches during the fight. The victim stumbled and fell, got up and removed his jersey, and was bleeding from his chest.

Another witness, called by the defense, testified that he saw the defendant and the victim engaged in "a lot of yelling and screaming" and a "pushing match," and "squaring up to fight." They began "fist fighting," although the altercation involved "bumping chest[s]" and "pushing off of each other," rather than actual "swings." Next, the victim took off his jersey, pulled out a screwdriver, and swung it at the defendant, jabbing at him, and the defendant kept backing away to avoid being hit. The defendant pulled out a weapon that looked like a "sheetrock edger" and "pok[ed]" at the victim two or three times with the knife.

Police subsequently recovered both a knife and screwdriver at the scene. No fingerprints were detected on either item. Both the

490 Mass. 822

knife and screwdriver tested positive for occult blood. The victim's DNA was detected on the blade of the knife, but there was not enough blood for the police to conduct further analysis of the screwdriver.

Surveillance cameras, operated by the shelter, captured some of the events that occurred inside and outside the shelter. Video excerpts and still images from this surveillance footage were shown to the jury at trial. Footage from a camera inside the shelter shows the defendant and the victim as they left the building. The defendant was walking ahead of the victim as they headed toward the door and, just as they went through the exit of the shelter, the defendant stopped and let the victim pass him. Footage from an outside camera depicts the two men as they walked through the parking lot; the defendant was following several paces behind the victim, until the defendant suddenly sped up and contacted the victim from behind with an outstretched arm, and they moved beyond the camera's view. Subsequent footage shows the two men as they came back into view; the victim circled the defendant, took off his jersey, and fell to the ground, while the defendant walked back toward the shelter.

Defense counsel argued in closing that his client had been acting in self-defense when he killed the victim. The prosecutor argued that the defendant acted with premeditation by ambushing the victim from behind, and also with extreme atrocity and cruelty. The jury found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on a theory of deliberate premeditation.

2. Procedural posture. While his direct appeal was pending, the defendant filed a c. 278A motion in the Superior Court, requesting that the fingernail clippings taken from the victim during the autopsy be tested for the defendant's DNA. As the Commonwealth conceded that the defendant had met the threshold requirements pursuant to § 3 (b ), an evidentiary hearing was held, after which the motion judge4 denied the motion. The defendant filed his subsequent appeal from that decision in this court because the direct appeal from

198 N.E.3d 442

his conviction of murder was pending here already. See Commonwealth v. Moffat, 478 Mass. 292, 293, 85 N.E.3d 38 (2017), S.C., 486 Mass. 193, 157 N.E.3d 45 (2020) ; G. L. c. 278A, § 18 (order allowing or denying motion under c. 278A is final and appealable). This court stayed the defendant's direct appeal pending the appeal from the denial of his c. 278A motion.

490 Mass. 823

Discussion. At the motion hearing, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant failed to meet the requirements of § 7 (b ). Specifically, according to the Commonwealth, the defendant failed to demonstrate that the presence of the defendant's DNA under the victim's fingernails would be "material or relevant" to the defendant's self-defense claim, see G. L. c. 278A, § 7 (b ) (4), and that therefore the failure to request such testing was not...

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