Commonwealth v. Thomas

Citation21 N.E.3d 901,469 Mass. 531
Decision Date02 September 2014
Docket NumberSJC–10826.
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH v. Chiteara M. THOMAS.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

William S. Smith, Northboro, for the defendant.

Mary E. Lee, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Present: SPINA, BOTSFORD, GANTS, DUFFLY, & LENK, JJ.

Opinion

GANTS

, J.

In the early morning of July 6, 2006, the defendant, Chiteara M. Thomas, used a cigarette lighter to set fire to a curtain in the first-floor apartment of a three-story house in Brockton (house). The fire quickly spread from the first floor to the upstairs apartments. Olinda Calderon, a resident in the third-floor apartment, died in the fire, and several residents and guests in the second- and third-floor apartments were injured. A Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of murder in the first degree on the theory of deliberate premeditation, arson of a dwelling house, and the attempted murder of thirteen persons.

On appeal, the defendant contends that the judge erred in denying, except in small part, her motion to suppress the statements she made to police on July 6 and 7, 2006,1 and that a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice arose from the admission in evidence of the defendant's invocation of her right to counsel at the commencement of her July 6 interview. We conclude that the judge erred in denying the motion to suppress the July 6 interview and the part of the July 7 interview that preceded the defendant's booking, but correctly denied the motion with respect to the defendant's postbooking confession. We also conclude that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable

doubt with respect to the convictions of murder in the first degree and attempted murder, but was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to the conviction of arson of a dwelling house. We therefore vacate the attempted murder convictions, affirm the conviction of arson of a dwelling house, and, with respect to the conviction of murder in the first degree, give the Commonwealth the option of either accepting a reduction of the verdict to felony-murder in the second degree or having the conviction vacated and proceeding with a new trial on the murder indictment.

Background. Because the sufficiency of the evidence is not at issue, we summarize briefly the evidence at trial. At the time of the fire, the defendant was a twenty-two year old homeless woman. Michelle Johnson rented and resided in the first-floor apartment of the house, which was a “place to buy [‘crack’ cocaine] and a known “drug house.” The defendant's boy friend, Cornelius Brown, and the defendant were among the persons allowed to stay in the apartment with Johnson, but before the fire, Johnson told the defendant to move out of the apartment. The defendant was angry with Johnson for preventing her from living with Brown, and repeatedly threatened to kill Johnson and burn the house down. The defendant returned to the house on multiple occasions and broke the windows of the first-floor apartment by throwing rocks and bricks at the house.

On June 27, 2006, a police officer saw the defendant walking on the porch of the house while holding a small paring knife. The police officer directed her to leave, but she continued to return. On July 3, police officers again saw her outside the house, where she had been arguing with Brown. A neighbor who lived across the street and witnessed the argument observed the defendant break one of the windows of the house and heard her yell, “I'll be back to torch the place,” and, “If I'm not going to have a home, you're not going to have one.” That day, Johnson threw a bottle at the defendant upon finding her sitting on the porch of the house, an act that enraged the defendant, especially when Brown failed to come to her defense. After that incident, the police warned the defendant not to return to the house, but she returned later that evening, and was arrested for trespassing. She was required to appear in court on July 5 to be arraigned on this charge, but defaulted, and a warrant issued for her arrest.

On the evening of July 5, the defendant visited the home of her friend, Veronica Copeland. The defendant was upset and high from

smoking crack cocaine, drinking alcohol, and taking Klonopin

medication. At or around midnight, the defendant drove Copeland's vehicle to the house without her permission, but Copeland followed her there and drove her back to Copeland's home. At 12:30 a.m. on July 6, the defendant telephoned Johnson and told her that she hated her, that she thought Johnson was engaging in a sexual relationship with Brown, and that she was going to “mess [her] up.”2 The defendant later took a bicycle from Copeland's home and rode back to the house.

Later that morning, the neighbor who lived across the street from the house was awakened by a traffic accident that occurred outside the house at approximately 4:50 a.m. At daybreak, the neighbor saw the defendant approach the house on foot and reach her hand into the second window on the first floor of the left side of the house. The neighbor then saw a reddish-orange glow from the first-floor windows, went outside, and saw the defendant running away from the house.3

The fire spread quickly through the three apartments. All who were on the first floor escaped without injury, but the family on the second floor and their two guests were trapped by the flames. The adults threw the children out of a window into the waiting arms of a good Samaritan who had stopped to provide assistance, and later jumped out of the window themselves, sustaining serious injuries when they hit the ground. The four residents of the third-floor apartment also were trapped. Three people, including a one month old baby girl, were rescued by fire fighters and survived; the fourth, Calderon, the mother of the baby, was pulled by a fire fighter from the bathroom where she had sought refuge but died at the hospital from smoke inhalation.

The police questioned the defendant on July 6 and 7, 2006, and arrested her during the interrogation on July 7. The video recordings of these interviews were admitted in evidence and played in their entirety at trial. On July 6 and initially on July 7, the defendant denied setting the fire, but after she was arrested and booked on the charges of murder and arson of a dwelling house, she admitted that she had “set the fire” with “just a lighter” by placing the flame on the curtain in “the second window.” The defendant

said that she did not know why she did it, but that her “intentions were never to hurt anybody.” Her description of her conduct was consistent with the observations of the neighbor who had seen her reach her hand into a window of the house, and with the fire investigation, which determined that the cause of the fire was incendiary, that the origin of the fire was the rear bedroom of the house, and that no accelerant had been used.

Discussion. 1. Motion to suppress. The defendant moved to suppress the statements she made on July 6 and 7, claiming violation of her right against self-incrimination and her right to counsel under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and art. 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. A judge in the Superior Court, who was not the trial judge, conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion, and made the following relevant findings of fact, which we supplement where necessary with evidence in the record that is uncontroverted and that was implicitly credited by the motion judge, see Commonwealth v. Isaiah I., 448 Mass. 334, 337, 861 N.E.2d 404 (2007)

, S.C., 450 Mass. 818, 882 N.E.2d 328 (2008), and with the video recordings of the interviews of the defendant, which were admitted in evidence at the motion hearing.4

On the morning of July 6, the Brockton police department and the State police began investigating the fire as a possible arson. They soon learned that the defendant had been in a feud with a resident of the house. Brockton police Detective Michael Schaaf, who was assigned that day to “warrant apprehension,” was asked to locate her. Detective Schaaf knew the defendant, and had arrested her for outstanding warrants on seven prior occasions.

The defendant knew that she had an outstanding default warrant arising from her arrest for trespassing at the house on July 3, because she had failed to appear for her arraignment on July 5. She also believed that the police were looking for her as a suspect in connection with the fire that morning. Accompanied by Copeland, she went to the Brockton District Court to clear up her warrant and obtain an attorney. At approximately 12:50 p.m. on July 6, she was in the court house lobby near the Department of Probation office when Detective Schaaf approached her and told her that detectives wanted to speak with her at the police station

about the fire. The defendant told him that she had an arrest warrant she was trying to clear up, and the detective replied that the police would “take care of” the warrant for her. The defendant agreed to go to the station with him. He did not place the defendant under arrest, handcuff her, or frisk her for weapons.

a. July 6 interview. The defendant was taken to an interview room at the police station, where she was met by State police Trooper John Sylva and Brockton police Detective Dominic Persampieri at 1:53 p.m. The defendant agreed to have her interview recorded, and a video recording was made of the interview. Trooper Sylva read the Miranda warnings form to the defendant and showed her the printed warnings as he read them. After asking her if she understood these rights, the defendant replied, “I don't understand.... If I said anything, ‘okay, don't want to talk to you guys,’ ‘cause that wouldn't happen, right?” Trooper Sylva replied, “Well, that's your right. If you want to contact a lawyer, you can always have a lawyer present when you talk to us.” The defendant then...

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