Commonwealth v. Watt, SJC-11693

CourtMassachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Writing for the CourtBUDD, J.
Citation146 N.E.3d 414,484 Mass. 742
Docket NumberSJC-11693
Decision Date04 June 2020
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Nyasani WATT (and nine companion cases ).

484 Mass. 742
146 N.E.3d 414

COMMONWEALTH
v.
Nyasani WATT (and nine companion cases 1 ).

SJC-11693

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk..

Argued December 10, 2019.
Decided June 4, 2020.


Elizabeth Doherty for Nyasani Watt.

Ruth Greenberg for Sheldon Mattis.

Dara Z. Kesselheim, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

Thomas H. Townsend & Jeanne M. Kempthorne, Assistant District Attorneys, for district attorney for the northwestern district & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Ryan M. Schiff, Boston, for Gary Johnson & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

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

BUDD, J.

484 Mass. 743
146 N.E.3d 419

A jury in the Superior Court convicted the defendants, Nyasani Watt and Sheldon Mattis, of murder in the first degree, aggravated assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and related offenses,2 in connection with a shooting that killed sixteen year old Jaivon Blake and injured fourteen year old Kimoni Elliott. The defendants appeal from their convictions and

484 Mass. 744

from the denial of their motions for a new trial. In addition, they ask us to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to order a new trial.

After full consideration of the record and the defendants' arguments, we affirm the defendants' convictions and decline to grant either defendant extraordinary relief pursuant to G. L. c. 278, § 33E. However, for the reasons discussed infra, we remand the issue of the constitutionality of Mattis's sentencing for an evidentiary hearing.3

Background. We summarize the facts the jury could have found, reserving certain details for discussion. On September 25, 2011, Elliott was visiting Blake at Blake's home near the intersection of Geneva Avenue and Everton Street in the Dorchester section of Boston. In the afternoon, Elliott walked from Blake's home to a nearby convenience store, located at the intersection of Geneva Avenue and Levant Street, to purchase rolling papers for marijuana cigarettes. He waited outside the store looking for someone old enough to make the purchase. An individual identified as Mattis approached on a bicycle and agreed to buy the rolling papers for Elliot. After doing so, Mattis asked Elliott where he was from; Elliott replied, "Everton." The two parted ways, and Elliott met Blake in a nearby parking lot.

As Elliott and Blake began to walk toward Blake's home, they were shot from behind by a male riding a bicycle. Witnesses described the shooter as wearing jeans, a red shirt, and a baseball cap; clothes fitting these descriptions were later seized from the defendants' houses, and two witnesses described Watt as wearing similar clothing on the day of the shooting. Blake suffered a single gunshot wound to the torso and died hours later at a hospital; Elliott survived gunshot wounds to his neck and right arm. Hours later, Watt had changed his clothes, and a friend helped him to take the braids out of his hair so that he could "change his look." Later that evening, he, Mattis, and others were "celebrating because [of] something [Watt] did."

Jeremiah Rodriguez, a key witness for the Commonwealth, testified that he, Watt, and Mattis were playing football on Levant Street in front of Rodriguez's house when

146 N.E.3d 420

they watched Elliott walk to the convenience store. After Mattis went to the store to interact with Elliott, he returned to the area outside Rodriguez's

484 Mass. 745

house and said to Watt and Rodriguez, "[B]e easy, because that's them kids." A few minutes later, Rodriguez observed Mattis meet with Watt at the corner of Levant Street and Geneva Avenue, hand Watt a gun, and pat him on the back. Rodriguez also testified that he heard Mattis tell Watt, "[T]hat's them walking up there right now" and that he "needed to go handle that." Watt then rode away on the bicycle. At trial, Rodriguez identified Watt in a surveillance video recording depicting him riding toward the scene of the shooting shortly before it occurred and wearing clothes generally matching eyewitness accounts of the shooter's appearance. Soon thereafter, while on his back porch, Rodriguez heard gunshots.

At trial, the Commonwealth's theory was that Watt and Mattis jointly planned and executed the shooting as part of an escalating gang feud. The defendants' primary theories were misidentification of Watt as the shooter and the unreliability of Rodriguez's testimony establishing Mattis's participation.

The jury convicted both defendants of murder in the first degree on theories of deliberate premeditation and extreme atrocity or cruelty. Watt, who was seventeen at the time of the shooting, received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after fifteen years. Mattis, who was eight months older than Watt, and eighteen at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Discussion. 1. Direct appeal. On direct appeal the defendants raise various evidentiary issues, assert error with respect to the jury instructions, and challenge the constitutionality of their sentences.

a. Evidentiary issues. i. Gang expert testimony. To demonstrate that the motive for the shooting was gang-related, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Detective Anthony Serra, who testified as both an expert and fact witness. Serra testified about gang activity in the Dorchester area surrounding the scene of the shooting, and specifically about the "Flatline" gang, based on Levant Street, and the Geneva-Everton gang, based in the neighborhood where Blake lived. He further testified that both defendants were associated with Flatline. The defendants were unsuccessful in moving in limine to exclude the testimony and objected to it at trial. On appeal, they argue that there was an inadequate basis for Serra to opine on the defendants' alleged membership in the Flatline gang and on the alleged ongoing feud between Flatline

484 Mass. 746

and Geneva-Everton.4 We agree that the testimony should not have been admitted; however, we conclude that the error was not prejudicial. See Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 478 Mass. 369, 375-376, 85 N.E.3d 934 (2017) (preserved issues reviewed for prejudicial error).

Expert testimony must be based on "facts within the witness's direct personal

146 N.E.3d 421

knowledge, facts already introduced in evidence, or unadmitted but independently admissible evidence" (quotations and citation omitted). Commonwealth v. Wardsworth, 482 Mass. 454, 466, 124 N.E.3d 662 (2019). See Mass. G. Evid. § 703 (2020). There is no indication that the basis for Serra's opinion fell into any of the above categories.

First, Serra indicated that his opinion that the defendants were members of the Flatline gang was based on the "collective knowledge" of other officers in the Boston police department. Because it is impossible to ascertain from the record what portion, if any, of such "collective knowledge" was based on personal observations that would have been independently admissible, Serra's opinion regarding the defendants' alleged gang membership improperly was admitted. See Wardsworth, 482 Mass. at 467-468, 124 N.E.3d 662 ("That other officers had formed the opinion that the defendant fit the criteria [for entry on the gang database] does not constitute proper foundation for [the expert's] opinion; the gang database entry did not provide [the expert] with underlying facts or data to which he could apply his own expertise"); Commonwealth v. Nardi, 452 Mass. 379, 392, 893 N.E.2d 1221 (2008) ("It is settled that an expert witness may not, under the guise of stating the reasons for his opinion, testify to matters of hearsay ..." [quotation and citation omitted] ).

Serra's testimony regarding the alleged feud between the two groups similarly was inadmissible. At trial, the detective explained that he first became aware of the feud when he heard about the fatal shooting of a resident of Geneva Avenue on New

484 Mass. 747

Year's Day in 2010. Although he had personal experience with individuals from Levant Street who were arrested in connection with the shooting, he had no direct involvement with that incident. He testified that his knowledge of the feud between Flatline and Geneva-Everton came from discussions with other investigators as well as residents in the area who provided tips and information. Again, because there was no indication whether this information, which formed the basis of his opinion, would have been independently admissible at trial, his opinion on this topic improperly was admitted. See Wardsworth, 482 Mass. at 466-471, 124 N.E.3d 662.

Nevertheless, there was little, if any, prejudicial effect from this testimony. Multiple civilian witnesses who lived on Levant Street and knew both defendants testified that the defendants were affiliated with the Flatline gang. A friend of the...

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22 practice notes
  • In re P.R., SJC-13068
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • August 5, 2021
    ...admissible in evidence and are a permissible basis for an expert to consider in formulating an opinion.8 See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 746, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020). Here, the psychiatrist's opinion was based on the unadmitted medical report, leaving only the third option as the pos......
  • Commonwealth v. Concepcion, SJC-12382
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • March 16, 2021
    ...violate art. 26, committing to revisit the issue only once the law and science in the area have settled. See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 754, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020) (discussing cases where issue was left open). In the meantime, we repeatedly have held that mandatory life sentences w......
  • Commonwealth v. Lopez, SJC-12007
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • August 20, 2020
    ...circumstances in which Garnham died suggested a connection between his death and the killing of the victim. See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 764, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020) (no error in failing to investigate speculative theories). As trial counsel did not err in this aspect of the case,......
  • Commonwealth v. Hinds, SJC-12953
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • April 20, 2021
    ..."evidence of motive need not be conclusive"; instead, "it need only provide a link in the chain of proof." Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 748, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020). Courts routinely have admitted evidence concerning tattoos to show motive.14 See, e.g., People v. Valdez, 55 Cal. 4th 8......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
22 cases
  • In re P.R., SJC-13068
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • August 5, 2021
    ...admissible in evidence and are a permissible basis for an expert to consider in formulating an opinion.8 See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 746, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020). Here, the psychiatrist's opinion was based on the unadmitted medical report, leaving only the third option as the pos......
  • Commonwealth v. Concepcion, SJC-12382
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • March 16, 2021
    ...violate art. 26, committing to revisit the issue only once the law and science in the area have settled. See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 754, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020) (discussing cases where issue was left open). In the meantime, we repeatedly have held that mandatory life sentences w......
  • Commonwealth v. Lopez, SJC-12007
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • August 20, 2020
    ...circumstances in which Garnham died suggested a connection between his death and the killing of the victim. See Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 764, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020) (no error in failing to investigate speculative theories). As trial counsel did not err in this aspect of the case,......
  • Commonwealth v. Hinds, SJC-12953
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • April 20, 2021
    ..."evidence of motive need not be conclusive"; instead, "it need only provide a link in the chain of proof." Commonwealth v. Watt, 484 Mass. 742, 748, 146 N.E.3d 414 (2020). Courts routinely have admitted evidence concerning tattoos to show motive.14 See, e.g., People v. Valdez, 55 Cal. 4th 8......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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