Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, SJC-12307

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation165 N.E.3d 1028,487 Mass. 171
Docket NumberSJC-12307
Decision Date09 April 2021

487 Mass. 171
165 N.E.3d 1028



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden..

Argued December 7, 2020.
Decided April 9, 2021.

Merritt Schnipper for the defendant.

John A. Wendel, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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


487 Mass. 171

The defendant, Jorge Rodriguez-Nieves, was convicted of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty in the stabbing death of Angel Morales. Prior to the defendant's trial, the prosecutor failed to disclose material, exculpatory evidence in his possession, in violation of

165 N.E.3d 1031

the principles set forth in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). See Mass. R. Crim. P. 14 (a) (1) (A) (vii), as amended,

487 Mass. 172

444 Mass. 1501 (2005). The defendant first learned of the evidence -- visceral testimony by the stepdaughter of the victim describing the victim's dying words -- when she took the stand as the Commonwealth's last witness. In this consolidated appeal from his conviction and from the denial of his motion for a new trial, the defendant contends that a new trial is necessary due to the prosecutor's failure to disclose the stepdaughter's statements and on the basis of newly discovered evidence from a forensic pathologist who opined that the victim would have been unable to speak after having been stabbed in the neck, which would have shown the stepdaughter's statement that he did to be medically impossible. The defendant has shown that the prosecutor's failure to disclose the stepdaughter's testimony prejudiced his ability to prepare and present his defense effectively, and that the pathologist's opinion probably would have been a real factor in the jury's deliberations. Accordingly, we set aside the verdict, vacate the conviction, and remand the matter to the Superior Court for a new trial. We emphasize that "the duties of a prosecutor to administer justice fairly, and particularly concerning requested or obviously exculpatory evidence, go beyond winning convictions."1 Commonwealth v. Tucceri, 412 Mass. 401, 408, 589 N.E.2d 1216 (1992). "The Constitution requires both that a criminal defendant be given a fair and impartial trial and that the government's conduct of the trial be free from all that is deliberately devious or inconsistent with the highest standards of professional conduct." Commonwealth v. Vaughn, 32 Mass. App. Ct. 435, 435, 590 N.E.2d 701 (1992). "We ought not have to remind the Commonwealth once again ‘to do the right thing.’ " Id. at 440, 590 N.E.2d 701. Here, the prosecutor's efforts fell far short of that constitutional imperative.

Insofar as they may arise in connection with any retrial, we also address the defendant's other claims of error, including the prosecutor's use of familial language to describe the relationships among the victim, the defendant, and some of the witnesses; the denial of his request for an instruction on manslaughter; and the ineffective assistance of trial counsel for not having introduced evidence concerning the defendant's traumatic childhood and his life experiences.

487 Mass. 173

1. Background. a. Facts. We recite the evidence at trial in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, reserving some details for later discussion.

At around 11 A.M. on July 13, 2014, the victim was outside his Holyoke apartment building with family, preparing to attend a parade. Among the group gathering for the parade were his wife;2 Geneciz Diaz, one of his stepdaughters; a second stepdaughter; and Diaz's two children. The defendant, who lived in the same building, also was outside, not far from the victim and his family.

165 N.E.3d 1032

The defendant was angry and yelled to the victim, whom he believed had spread a rumor that the defendant was spending time with a woman other than Maria Pimental, his long-time girlfriend.3 The defendant, who appeared "furious," shoved the victim and suggested that they "go to the back of the building so we can see what happens." The victim said that he did not want any trouble; he was with his family and did not want to fight. The victim and the defendant parted company, each returning to his respective apartment.

Minutes later, both were back outside. Still angry, the defendant was shouting and cursing. The defendant warned that he would "take [the victim's] heart out of his chest" and threatened the victim, "Son of a bitch, I'm going to kill you." The victim elicited assistance from his brother-in-law, a long-time friend of the defendant. The brother-in-law tried to calm the defendant, but the defendant rushed past the brother-in-law and towards the victim, while pulling a knife from his pants. The victim fled to a parking lot, where he tripped and fell. The defendant caught the victim, held him down, and stabbed him once in the neck. The victim stood momentarily, held his neck, which was spurting blood, and then fell. There was "massive bleeding."

Although none of the other witnesses to the events surrounding the stabbing testified that the victim spoke after he had been

487 Mass. 174

stabbed,4 Diaz testified that the victim "looked at me and he said: Take care of the children. He was saying my daughter ... was his princess.... He told me to take care of the girls and he fell." Diaz, again the only person to do so among the percipient witnesses (all of whom were the victim's family), said that the defendant "stood up and ... walked over to [a nearby] stop sign to laugh." When paramedics reached the scene shortly after 11:15 A.M. , they found the victim face down in a pool of blood and unresponsive. The victim was transported to an emergency room, where doctors detected no signs of life, and he was declared dead.

Later that day, the defendant explained to Pimental that he had argued with the victim and had "cut" his neck. The defendant asked Pimental to "get a ticket so that [they] could go to Puerto Rico."5 The defendant was arrested that evening. His pants were stained with blood, and a search of his apartment revealed a chef's knife in a drawer in the kitchen that later tested positive for blood. Blood samples from the pants and the knife were consistent with the victim's deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy testified that the stab wound was about five inches deep and would have required "a significant amount of force" to inflict. The wound penetrated muscle, transected the left internal jugular vein and the right carotid artery, and partially transected the trachea. He explained, "[G]iven that two large vessels were transected,

165 N.E.3d 1033

there would have been a combination of spurting potentially from the arterial bleed and profuse bleeding from ... the jugular vein." The medical examiner opined that the victim would have been "choking on his own blood" and likely had been conscious and experiencing pain for "minutes" before he lost consciousness and died. The medical examiner was not asked, and did not testify, whether, given the nature of the wound, the victim could have spoken.

b. Procedural history. The defendant was indicted on a charge of murder in the first degree. At trial, the Commonwealth proceeded on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. The judge instructed the jury on both theories, over

487 Mass. 175

trial counsel's objection to the latter.6 The jury convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty.

c. Postconviction investigation. Diaz's testimony regarding the victim's dying words and the defendant laughing had not been part of her statements to police on the day of the stabbing, which were memorialized in a police report and disclosed to the defendant. When asked on cross-examination about these differences, Diaz stated that she had given the information to the prosecutor "last week."

After his conviction, the defendant retained a forensic pathologist to consider the question whether the victim could have spoken after he had been stabbed. The pathologist opined that "it is highly unlikely [the victim] would have been able to speak clearly [following the stabbing], or even have vocalized understandable words at all, with the wound he sustained." Given the victim's injuries, she asserted, the "speech-suppressing inflow of blood ... would have occurred almost instantaneously ... and prohibited intelligible speech."

The defendant also obtained the prosecutor's notes, which showed that, at least two days prior to calling Diaz to take the stand, the prosecutor became aware of her changed statements and understood their relevance to the theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty. The prosecutor's notes of his conversation with Diaz7 recorded her changed statements; on one page, the word "Cunneen" is scribed,...

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13 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Andrade, SJC-11529
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • October 5, 2021
    ...exculpatory evidence only where that evidence is in the Commonwealth's possession or control. See Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, 487 Mass. 171, 177, 165 N.E.3d 1028 (2021).10 The defendant's claims concerning the "destruction" of the vehicle in which Levin was seated (that was returned t......
  • Commonwealth v. Andrade, SJC-11529
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • October 5, 2021
    ...exculpatory evidence only where that evidence is in the Commonwealth's possession or control. See Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, 487 Mass. 171, 177 (2021). [10] The defendant's claims concerning the "destruction" of the vehicle in which Levin was seated (that was returned to its owner af......
  • Commonwealth v. Caldwell, SJC-12907
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • May 6, 2021
    ...& (iv)-(ix), to give the prosecution notice of a specific interest in the prosecutor's note. Compare Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, 487 Mass. 171, 179 n.12, 165 N.E.3d 1028 (2021).10 For this reason, we reject the conclusion that disclosure of the witness's role in Rancourt might have wo......
  • Commonwealth v. Diaz, 21-P-92
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • January 6, 2022
    ...based, this court will exercise its own judgment on the ultimate ... legal conclusions." Commonwealth v. Rodriguez-Nieves, 487 Mass. 171, 176, 165 N.E.3d 1028 (2021), quoting Commonwealth v. Tucceri, 412 Mass. 401, 409, 589 N.E.2d 1216 (1992). The defendant moved for a new trial based on th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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