Commonwealth v. Rhonda Adjutant, SJC-09299 (MA 3/14/2005)

Citation443 Mass. 649
Decision Date14 March 2005
Docket NumberSJC-09299
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Homicide. Self-Defense. Evidence, Self-defense, Relevancy and materiality, State of mind, Exculpatory, Prior violent conduct, Reputation.

Indictment found and returned in the Superior Court Department on October 26, 1999.

The case was tried before Regina L. Quinlan, J.

Chauncey B. Wood for the defendant.

Paul B. Linn, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Present: Marshall, C.J., Greaney, Ireland, Spina, Cowin, Sosman, & Cordy, JJ.


Following a jury trial, Rhonda Adjutant, a woman employed by an escort service, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter for killing Stephen Whiting, a client of the service. In this appeal, Adjutant argues that evidence of Whiting's violent reputation and past conduct, even though unknown to her at the time of the killing, should have been admitted at her trial because it was relevant to her claim that Whiting was the "first aggressor" in the altercation that resulted in his death, and that she acted in self-defense.

After surveying the state of the law in jurisdictions throughout the country, we are persuaded that evidence of a victim's prior violent conduct may be probative of whether the victim was the first aggressor where a claim of self-defense has been asserted and the identity of the first aggressor is in dispute.1 Consequently, when such circumstances are present, we hold, as a matter of common-law principle, that trial judges have the discretion to admit in evidence specific incidents of violence that the victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated. While there is potential for confusion and prejudice inherent in the admission of this type of evidence, trial judges are well equipped to decide whether the probative value of the evidence proffered outweighs its prejudicial effect in the context of the facts and issues presented in specific cases.

In the present case, relying on language in past decisions of this court, see, e.g., Commonwealth v. Graham, 431 Mass. 282, 291 (2000); Commonwealth v. Dilone, 385 Mass. 281, 285-286 (1982), the judge ruled that she lacked the discretion to admit evidence of prior violent acts committed by Whiting but unknown to Adjutant. Because we conclude that the judge's ruling, while understandable, was prejudicial to Adjutant's claim that she acted in self-defense, we reverse the judgment and remand the case for a new trial.

1. Background. The evidence at trial was as follows. Adjutant worked as an escort for Newbury Cosmopolitan International Escort Service (Newbury). In the early morning of September 25, 1999, Whiting telephoned Newbury and requested an escort. The Newbury dispatcher told Whiting that he could receive a full body massage and one hour of an escort's company for $175. Whiting agreed to these terms, and arrangements were made for Adjutant to visit Whiting's home in Revere. Shortly thereafter, Adjutant was dropped off there by a driver and the dispatcher's boy friend (drivers). Whiting met her outside his building and accompanied her to his basement apartment.

Once inside, Whiting paid Adjutant, who then telephoned Newbury to report that she had received payment. Adjutant testified that during and after the call Whiting snorted two lines of cocaine. Adjutant then offered to begin a massage. Whiting replied that he wanted intercourse and believed that he had paid for it. Adjutant denied that she was sent to have intercourse with him, and telephoned the Newbury dispatcher on her cellular telephone to inform her that Whiting wanted more than a massage. Adjutant then handed the phone to Whiting, and the dispatcher reminded him of the original terms. Whiting demanded a total refund, which neither the dispatcher nor Adjutant offered. When Whiting returned the telephone to Adjutant, the dispatcher told her to leave and agreed to stay on the line until Adjutant was out of the apartment.

There was conflicting testimony as to when the defendant and the victim armed themselves for their fatal confrontation. Adjutant testified that when she attempted to leave, Whiting pushed her onto his bed and retrieved a crowbar from the kitchen, at which point Adjutant picked up a knife that was lying on the bedside table, next to a plate of cocaine. The dispatcher, on the other hand, testified that while she was talking to Whiting, he said that Adjutant had a knife, and that when Adjutant then got back on the telephone with her, Adjutant said that Whiting was picking up a crowbar.

In any event, after arming himself, Whiting first slammed the crowbar on a counter and then swung it at Adjutant, striking her in the leg. She responded by nicking him in the face with the knife, drawing blood. Adjutant testified that she next tried to advert further confrontation by offering to begin again with a massage, but Whiting refused. Meanwhile, at Adjutant's urging, the dispatcher alerted Adjutant's drivers to return to Whiting's apartment. At this point, Adjutant testified that she attempted to run toward the door, but Whiting tackled her. During the struggle, Adjutant stabbed Whiting in the shoulder with the knife and moved away. Whiting, however, continued to block Adjutant's exit, while Adjutant screamed at him to stay back and threatened to cut him again if he came any closer.2

Within minutes, Adjutant's drivers returned to the scene, heard her screams, and kicked in the door to the apartment. According to Adjutant, the moment one of the drivers kicked in the door, Whiting advanced on her with the crowbar raised, at which point she stabbed him in the neck, inflicting the fatal wound. Whiting did not immediately drop the crowbar or move away from the door. When he eventually did, Adjutant fled the apartment with the drivers, throwing down the knife and her telephone.3

One of the drivers provided a different account of the fatal stabbing. He testified that after the door was kicked open, Whiting turned to face the drivers, at which point he saw Adjutant move toward Whiting and stab him in the neck in a straightforward thrusting motion. The medical examiner's testimony concerning the likely manner in which the fatal knife wound was inflicted was not entirely consistent with the driver's testimony.

Adjutant maintained at trial that all her actions were defensive and intended to help her escape the apartment. The jury's main task was determining whether Adjutant acted in self-defense. That inquiry required the jury to weigh Adjutant's credibility, as well as that of the dispatcher and the driver, and decide who moved first to attack the other during the last moments of the standoff. See Commonwealth v. Kendrick, 351 Mass. 203, 210-212 (1966).

In her defense, Adjutant focused on Whiting's intoxication and drug use that evening. The medical examiner testified at trial that Whiting had cocaine in his bloodstream, and that his blood alcohol level reflected his consumption of the equivalent of sixty ounces of beer or five ounces of whiskey. Two of Whiting's neighbors testified that, earlier that evening, Whiting appeared intoxicated and had made unsuccessful sexual advances toward women near the apartment building. Adjutant testified that she became terrified when her initial blows to Whiting did not seem to faze him, apparently because of his drugged condition.

During the trial, Adjutant's counsel sought to cross-examine Whiting's neighbors about his previous violent behavior and reputation for violence. The judge sustained the prosecutor's objections to these questions and also barred testimony about Whiting's behavior while intoxicated, ruling that Whiting's violent past or reputation for violence was only relevant if Adjutant had been aware of them at the time of the stabbing.4 When the prosecution subsequently elicited testimony that Whiting was "calm," "talked . . . very softly," and "sounded like a nice person" on the night of the incident, defense counsel moved for permission to "impeach" this testimony by evidence of Whiting's prior acts of aggression. The judge denied the motion, except insofar as to permit Adjutant to introduce percipient witness testimony to Whiting's previous use of a crowbar. No such witnesses were called.5

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Adjutant of voluntary manslaughter.6 She appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed the conviction. Commonwealth v. Adjutant, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 1107 (2003). We granted her application for further appellate review limited to whether the trial judge erred in concluding that she had no discretion to admit Adjutant's proffered evidence and consequently excluding it.

2. Discussion. In almost every American jurisdiction, evidence of a victim's violent character may be admitted to support an accused's claim of self-defense under two distinct theories. First, it may be admitted to prove that at the time of the assault the defendant was reasonably apprehensive for his safety, and used a degree of force that was reasonable in light of the victim's violent tendencies. Because such evidence is relevant to the defendant's state of mind (the subjective reasonableness of his apprehension and actions), a predicate to its admissibility is the defendant's prior knowledge of it. Second, it may be admitted as tending to prove that the victim and not the defendant was likely to have been the "first aggressor," where there is a dispute as to who initiated the attack. Under the first theory, the evidence is not admitted for the purpose of showing that the victim acted in conformance with his character for violence; under the second theory, it is.

Massachusetts has long followed the evidentiary rule that permits the introduction of evidence of the victim's violent character, if known to the defendant, as it bears on the defendant's state of mind and the reasonableness of his actions in claiming to have acted in self-defense. See ...

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