Commonwealth v. Rodriguez

Citation101 Mass.App.Ct. 439,192 N.E.3d 269
Decision Date27 July 2022
Docket Number19-P-621
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Robert F. Hennessy, Springfield, for the defendant.

Kelsey A. Baran, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Present: Green, C.J., Vuono, Meade, Sullivan, & Henry, JJ.1


The defendant, Michael Rodriguez, was charged with murder in the first degree in the shooting death of Julian Cartie. After a jury trial, he was convicted of murder in the second degree. G. L. c. 265, § 1.2 The sole issue at trial was whether the defendant acted with malice and premeditation, or whether he acted in self-defense. Percipient witnesses testified, as did the defendant. Portions of the confrontation were recorded by several surveillance video cameras, though the shooting itself was not recorded. On appeal, the defendant claims that the judge abused his discretion by permitting a witness to testify, over objection, that several years after the killing the defendant twice referred to Cartie as the "nigger soldier I shot."3 For the reasons that follow, we discern no error. We further conclude that none of the defendant's other claims of error warrant a new trial or a reduction in the verdict, and we accordingly affirm the judgments and the order denying the defendant's motion to reduce the verdict.

Background. We summarize the evidence presented to the jury, reserving some additional facts for later discussion. After a night out at a club in Springfield, Cartie, his brother, Nathan Alvarado, and a friend, Angelo Delgado, Jr., stopped at a restaurant located nearby. The defendant and a group of his friends had also been at the club, although the two groups did not know each other and did not interact while at the club. Both groups were drinking heavily, and left the club at closing time, around 1:30 to 2 A.M. on February 22, 2009.

Once they reached the restaurant, Cartie's group parked their car and Delgado stopped to relieve himself. The car in which the defendant was a passenger drove past. The defendant was in the front passenger seat. The car belonged to the driver, the defendant's girlfriend. An acquaintance and his girlfriend were in the back seat. Cartie thought that there were only women in the car and started to yell at the car.

When the car stopped at a red light, the defendant got out and walked down the street in Cartie's direction. A surveillance video recording obtained from the restaurant shows the defendant picking up a rectangular object from the ground. As set forth more fully below, the defendant testified that he dropped his cell phone and got out of the car to retrieve it. An argument ensued between Cartie and the defendant. Neither Delgado nor Alvarado could recall what was said, although profanities were involved. The defendant's girlfriend and one of the backseat passengers also testified that they did not hear the exchange.

The witnesses recounted different versions of what happened next, but it is undisputed that the defendant had a loaded firearm when he got out of the car and that he shot Cartie five times within ninety seconds.

Alvarado testified that the defendant, while still in the passenger seat of the car, raised a gun, cocked it in a sideways manner, and flashed it toward them.4 The video recording from the restaurant depicts the defendant picking something up from the ground and walking backward in the direction of his girlfriend's car. Cartie, followed by Delgado and Alvarado, walked toward the defendant.

At some point the defendant drew a gun, and Delgado saw him cocking it. Cartie's companions saw the gun and "screamed out" to warn Cartie, "yelling" that the defendant had a gun, but Cartie did not heed the warning and kept moving toward the defendant.

The pace at which Cartie approached -- i.e., fast or moderate -- was in dispute. A witness who was also stopped at the red light testified that Cartie and his companions approached the defendant at a fast pace, quickly enough that it caught her eye.5

The defendant backed away from Cartie toward the car's open passenger door. According to Alvarado, the defendant sat down, but stood up when Cartie got within arms’ length and fired. Delgado testified that, when the defendant raised the gun and pointed it at Cartie, Cartie put his right hand out. Delgado said that the defendant looked scared and shot when he was backed up against the passenger door, which was open when the shots were fired.

Cartie collapsed on the street and died as a result of the gunshot wounds, two of which entered the left-hand side of his chest; a third entered his abdomen. According to the medical examiner, somewhere between three and five shots were fired at close range. There was stippling on Cartie's chest from gunpowder, and a through-and-through wound began at Cartie's finger and exited through the right palm. The medical examiner could not say with certainty where Cartie's right hand was at the time of the shooting. It could have been down by the abdomen, but Cartie's hand may have been outstretched toward the defendant, in which case the bullet traversed Cartie's hand and entered his chest. Toxicology tests conducted by the medical examiner showed that Cartie's blood alcohol level was 0.31.

The defendant testified at trial. He told the jury that he opened the car door to spit, dropped his cell phone, and got out of the car to retrieve it. At this point Cartie was standing by his own parked car. The defendant heard people yelling at him, but he was unable to understand everything they said because he did not "know English very well." The defendant told the men, in Spanish, to respect him because they did not know each other. In response, according to the defendant, Cartie became angry, threatened the defendant, saying, "I'm going to fuck you up," and Cartie and his two companions rushed toward the defendant. The defendant did not see a weapon but testified that Cartie's arm was behind his back. The defendant had a gun tucked in the waistband of his pants.

The defendant was five feet, eight inches tall and weighed 110 pounds. There was evidence that Cartie was five feet, nine inches tall and weighed 181 pounds. Cartie was a member of the National Guard and in excellent physical condition.

As Cartie and the others advanced toward him, the defendant backed away, pulled out a gun, and chambered a round of ammunition. The defendant claimed that because he was outnumbered and Cartie was much bigger than he was, he pointed the gun at Cartie to stop his advance. According to the defendant, Cartie kept coming toward him and stated, "I'll kill you." The defendant said he told Cartie in English more than once to "back up." According to the defendant, Cartie continued to advance quickly. The video recording confirms that Cartie and the others continued to move forward, while the defendant backed up.

The defendant testified that he fired the weapon to stop Cartie's advance once Cartie "was on top of [him]," that he did not have time to run or get in the car because Cartie approached him at a rapid pace, that he was outnumbered and scared, that he thought Cartie was trying to kill him, and that he felt he did not have any other choice but to shoot. Cartie's last steps and the shooting occurred off camera. The video recording shows only a bright burst of light and smoke when the defendant shot Cartie. The defendant fled the scene in his girlfriend's car. He dismantled the gun and threw the disassembled parts into the river in the Indian Orchard section of Springfield.

Over five years after the shooting, in April 2014, a report to the Springfield Police Department's "Text-a-Tip" line led investigators to the defendant's (by then) former girlfriend, who had driven the car the night Cartie was killed. The former girlfriend initially declined to cooperate with the investigation when contacted in May of 2014. The police then arrested her as an accessory after the fact in September of 2014. She obtained counsel and agreed to cooperate. In October of 2014, the defendant asked a lawyer to check for outstanding warrants for him, after hearing that police had made inquiries about him to his mother-in-law. He was not apprehended until December 1, 2014.

Once apprehended, the defendant was held in custody. In recorded telephone calls placed by the defendant from jail in September of 2015, the defendant asked a friend nicknamed "Bebo" if the defendant's former girlfriend had told anyone what her lawyer was recommending. The defendant told Bebo, "That guy [her lawyer] ain't worth shit.... [A]ll he ever wants is people to cop out and for people to cooperate...." The defendant repeatedly asked Bebo to "get ahold of her," and tell her the lawyer "is doing nothing for her to dump him the fuck out, and ... to talk to my lawyer to follow his lead." He added, "[T]hat guy's going to fuck up her life and mine.... He's going to try to get her to stick her foot in it and tell a lie to harm me...." The defendant also offered to pay his former girlfriend's legal fees.

Jose Rodriguez was present for and participated in the September 2015 conversation from the jail. Rodriguez6 (no relation to the defendant) was a cooperating witness who was incarcerated in the same facility on charges of assault and battery, violation of a restraining order, and attempted breaking and entering of a motor vehicle. Rodriguez knew the defendant and testified that he had purchased drugs from the defendant in the past.7 Rodriguez also testified that the defendant approached him in jail after the call to Bebo and asked Rodriguez if he had ever killed someone (to which Rodriguez responded "yes"), and then asked "if mysteriously the bail appeared, would I be willing to do something." The defendant did not want to serve a life sentence and was worried about his former girlfriend "because she was there the night of the incident."

According to Rodriguez, the defendant...

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