Commonwealth v. Sliech-brodeur

Decision Date19 July 2010
Docket NumberSJC-10070.
Citation457 Mass. 300,930 N.E.2d 91
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court


Wendy H. Sibbison, for the defendant.

Jane Davidson Montori, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Philip G. Cormier, Boston, for Committee for Public Counsel Services & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.



A jury found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree of Joseph Brodeur, her husband, on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. The events giving rise to the charge occurred on July 28, 2004. At trial, the defendant argued that she was not criminally responsible for her husband's death. The defendant appeals from her conviction, challenging, inter alia, the denial of her motion to suppress certain evidence found in a search of her home; the scope of pretrial discovery orders, granted on motion of the Commonwealth, that concerned her defense of lack of criminal responsibility; and a number of rulings by the trial judge. We conclude that the defendant's motion to suppress was properly denied, but because we further conclude that the discovery orders violated Mass. R.Crim. P. 14(b)(2), as appearing in 442 Mass. 1518 (2004), and prejudiced the defendant, we reverse her conviction. We consider briefly additional issues raised by the defendant that may arise at a retrial.1

1. Background. We summarize the facts that the jury could have found based on the evidence introduced at trial.

The victim and the defendant were married in 1994, when he was sixty years old and she was forty-nine. Both had been married previously and both had children from their prior marriages; they had no children together. The couple lived at 56 Bear Hole Road in West Springfield but spent part of the year, from October to May, in Florida.

Although some of their friends described the couple as having a “wonderful time” together and a “good relationship,” they were not without marital difficulties. Financial and sexual issues strained the marriage. The victim gave the defendant monthly invoices for her share of each household expense, broken down to the penny, despite the fact that the defendant did not like and complained about the arrangement. Each year in or around April, the victim and the defendant argued about the payment of taxes. In March of 2004, approximately four months before the victim was killed, the defendant reported to Florida police that her pocketbook had been stolen. However, after the victim went to the police the following month claiming that the pocketbook was never missing and asserting that the defendant had filed a false insurance claim, the defendant came to believe that the victim had taken and hidden the pocketbook. Also in March, 2004, while the defendant and the victim were still in Florida, the victim made arrangements with his daughter and one of his friends secretly to move a file cabinet that contained the couple's financial documents out of their Bear Hole Road home and into the basement of his daughter's house. In June, 2004, the victim threatened the defendant that he was going to subpoena the defendant's bank records and accused her of converting certificates of deposit to cash.2

In February and March, 2004, the victim, while in Florida, separately telephoned his daughter and his friend and indicated that he and the defendant were going to divorce. Nevertheless, in May, 2004, the couple returned from Florida and resumed living together at their West Springfield home. Despite having independent financial resources and being unhappy, the defendant refused to move out of the home because she wanted to protect a claim to her half of the property. On July 26, two days before the victim's death, the victim stated that he was going to continue with divorce proceedings.

On July 28, 2004, between 9 and 9:30 p.m., the defendant telephoned her son, John Sliech, who was with his girl friend, Kathy Gilberti, at his home in Westfield; the defendant stated there was a “problem.” Sliech and Gilberti left immediately for the defendant's home at Bear Hole Road. Once they arrived and Sliech went into the house, he telephoned the police. At approximately 9:45 p.m., the first police officer arrived in response to the call, and observed Gilberti consoling the defendant, who was upset and mumbling, on the couch. The officer heard the defendant say, He hit me.” Another officer, Sergeant Thomas Wilkinson, followed a blood trail on the family room carpet into the dining room, and observed the victim lying under a portion of the dining room table, covered with a sheet, with his feet protruding. The victim was wearing only a blood-soaked T-shirt. Lividity 3 was apparent in his jaw and feet. The victim had thirty-four distinct knife wounds to his head, neck, chest, and back and no defensive wounds. He died from a loss of blood from three or four of the wounds, one of which went through his chest and penetrated his left lung and heart.

After observing the victim's body, Sergeant Wilkinson was told by Gilberti that the defendant may have overdosed on medication, and he so informed the ambulance personnel. The defendant reported to the paramedic who was part of the ambulance team that she had a history of depression and fibromyalgia and that she had ingested twenty-five Klonopin pills; she stated she wanted to kill herself. During her conversation with the paramedic, the defendant was able to respond to questions appropriately and coherently, and she was at the highest level for all functions tested, including alertness, pupil dilation, eye opening, and verbal and motor responsiveness.

The defendant was transported by ambulance to Baystate Medical Center. On the way to the hospital, and again at the hospital, the defendant indicated that she took the medication because she wanted to kill herself.” The following day, July 29, the defendant was released from the hospital.

A subsequent search of the defendant's Bear Hole Road home by the police revealed, with respect to the master bedroom, a large amount of blood on the bed, the bed sheets pushed down, a broken lamp pushed out of its original place, and a “balled up” comforter and a pillow with bloodstains. Blood, bloodstains, and blood spatter were observed in the master bedroom, around the front door of the house, on the landing outside the front door, and in the dining room where the victim's body was found. The police found a bloody knife and small crowbar on a towel in the bathroom, near to which lay a woman's watch and two rings. One of the rings tested positive for blood, as did the sink faucet, the sink drain, and the bathtub faucet.

During their search, the officers also discovered and seized from the kitchen counter a letter written on lined paper with the name Howard Safford 4 at the top; twenty-two small, yellow “notes” affixed to items throughout the house, each bearing the name of one of the defendant's sons and her signature; and a looseleaf notebook containing mementos of the victim's granddaughter, who had died of leukemia. This last item contained a note dated six days before the murder addressed to the victim's daughter and son-in-law; it read, “I kept these. Now they are yours. Love, Joann.”

After the Commonwealth rested at the end of its direct case, the defendant presented evidence on the issue of her criminal responsibility on the day of the homicide. Dr. Daniel Brown, a licensed forensic psychologist retained by the defendant as an expert witness, testified. Dr. Brown had spent a total of twenty-six and one-half hours interviewing the defendant and conducting a series of psychological tests, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), and a series of tests to assess the accuracy and validity of the defendant's self-reported symptoms and memory loss. Based on his interviews and the results of the testing, Dr. Brown determined the defendant was generally an overcontrolled person, had a dependent personality, and felt very much controlled by the victim. She compartmentalized her anger so that she would not feel or experience it, but in response to the stressful events that occurred leading up to and on July 28, 2004, the defendant “lost it.” In particular, she had a substantial loss of awareness; she could neither see nor hear; and she was not cognizant of what was taking place. In Dr. Brown's opinion, on July 28, 2004, the defendant suffered from five psychiatric disorders he characterized as types of mental diseases or defects: major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, mixed personality disorder with dependent features, dissociative amnesia, and dissociative disorder not otherwise specified. He concluded that, as a result of these mental diseases or defects, the defendant could not appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or conform her conduct to the requirements of the law.

In rebuttal, the Commonwealth called Dr. Martin Kelly, a forensic psychiatrist, who had been appointed at the Commonwealth's request to perform an evaluation of the defendant pursuant to rule 14(b)(2)(B) and who interviewed the defendant for a total of two hours and forty-five minutes. Dr. Kelly opined that the defendant had no history of a mental disease or defect and did not suffer from one on July 28, 2004. She therefore had, in his opinion, the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct, could conform her conduct to the requirements of the law on that date, and did not lack criminal responsibility.5

2 Discussion. a Motion to suppress. The defendant moved before trial to suppress certain items of physical evidence, including the letter found on lined paper in the kitchen of the Bear Hole Road residence and the twenty-two small, yellow notes found in its garage, cellar, and office. After...

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