Commonwealth v. West

Decision Date02 July 2021
Docket NumberSJC-12489
Parties COMMONWEALTH v. Steven WEST.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Andrew S. Crouch, Boston, for the defendant.

Michelle R. King, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

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

WENDLANDT, J.

The defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty, for killing his sister-in-law, Alyssa Haden. At trial, the Commonwealth proceeded on a theory that the defendant raped the victim, crushing her with his body weight until she died of asphyxia

. In his defense, the defendant maintained that he and the victim, a petite woman who weighed less than one-third of his weight, were having an affair, and that her death following consensual sexual intercourse was an accident.

On appeal, the defendant argues that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction. He also contends that the judge did not adequately address a jury question, challenges some of the judge's evidentiary rulings, and argues that, during closing argument, the prosecutor misstated certain evidence. In addition, the defendant asserts that a reduction in the verdict would be more consonant with justice, and asks us to exercise our authority under G. L. c. 278, § 33E, to reduce the degree of guilt. We affirm the conviction and discern no reason to grant relief under G. L. c. 278, § 33E.

1. Background. a. Facts. We recite the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, reserving some details for later discussion. See Commonwealth v. Combs, 480 Mass. 55, 57, 100 N.E.3d 730 (2018).

In 2010, the defendant, then nineteen, met the then eighteen year old victim, who was approximately four feet, eleven inches tall, and weighed 125 pounds, and her twin sister, through an online "chat room."1 The defendant, who weighed over 400 pounds, and the victim's sister commenced a romantic relationship. After eight months of conversing over the Internet and by telephone, the defendant moved from Indiana to Massachusetts to be with her. Within a year, they moved into an apartment together, got married, and had a son. At trial, the sister testified that when she and the defendant engaged in sexual intercourse, he did not put his weight on her.

Early in 2012, the victim moved in with the couple in their apartment in Spencer in order to care for their son and to assist with rental payments. In February of that year, the victim reported to police that items in her room had been vandalized and that her debit card was missing. The vandalized items (among them, a bikini bottom, a diploma, a doll, a Bible, and two calendars) had been defaced with vulgar, degrading comments, some specifically naming the victim, and two articles of clothing had had holes burned through them.

At trial, the defendant suggested that a former boyfriend of the victim had vandalized the items,2 but a handwriting expert testified that the handwriting on the vandalized items was consistent with the defendant's handwriting and inconsistent with the former boyfriend's handwriting. An investigation revealed that the missing debit card had been used for purchases at a nearby store and also to make calls to "900 numbers."3 The defendant later told his wife that he had used the card; he claimed that he had mistaken the name on the card and that he had paid the victim all of the money spent. The victim told police that the money had been repaid and that she did not want the defendant criminally charged for taking or using her card.

The victim moved out of the apartment in March or April of 2012. She complained to her sister and to one of her friends about the defendant's personal hygiene, telling her sister that the defendant was heavy and smelled, and remarking to her friend that the defendant was "disgusting." The victim also told the friend that she did not like the defendant, and mocked the defendant's weight, referring to him as "Lardo."

In September of 2012, the victim moved back in with her sister and the defendant. By then, the victim was dating a new boyfriend, and was saving money so that she and her boyfriend could move into their own apartment.

On October 9, 2012, the victim's sister, who was nearly nine months pregnant, was spending the night at a nearby hospital. Late that evening, the victim and her boyfriend were exchanging text messages. At some point, the victim sent a message saying that she was afraid; there was no testimony explaining the reason for her fear.

On the morning of October 10, 2012, the victim's mother was concerned that the victim was not responding to calls to her cellular telephone, and asked the victim's brother to check on her. He found the victim's lifeless body lying on her bed, partially covered by blankets and a body pillow. The victim's pajamas were askew, and her pants had a hole in the crotch. There also was a zig-zag pattern on her back, which matched the pattern of the mattress, and a body pillow on the floor that had a red-brown stain. Although the victim's body was positioned on the back, face up, lividity was present on the forehead, where blood evidently had pooled after the victim's death. This condition indicated that the body likely had been positioned face down for a period of time after the victim's death, sufficiently long to allow blood to be pulled to the forehead after her heart stopped beating. The lividity also suggested that the victim had been turned over onto her back, to the position in which her body was found, sometime after her death.

An autopsy revealed that the victim died of "asphyxia

due to compression of [her] face, neck, and chest." The compression was the result of significant force, such as that which could have been provided by the defendant's body weight on top of the victim. The medical examiner testified4 that, if there were a "complete" loss of blood flow to the brain, through compression of the chest, face, and neck, the victim would have been conscious for at least thirty seconds, possibly longer, and death from "compression asphyxia" would have taken place five to ten minutes after the victim lost consciousness. If the loss of blood flow was not complete, so that some blood, and thus oxygen, were reaching the brain, these times would have been longer. On cross-examination, the medical examiner clarified that if the compression had been applied "consistently and completely," loss of consciousness would have occurred in under a minute, and the victim would have ceased moving at that time, although death would have occurred from five to ten minutes thereafter.5

Sperm cells collected from the victim's vaginal and external genital area matched the defendant's deoxyribonucleic acid profile. Forensic examination revealed that the defendant's laptop computer, which he shared with the victim's sister (his wife), had been used to conduct Internet searches that included the victim's name, the word "beastiality," and "I wanna fuck my sister-in-law."

Officers learned that, on the morning the victim's body was discovered, the defendant had left his son with a family friend; the friend said that the defendant was acting "strangely." Police interviewed the defendant that afternoon. He denied any involvement in the victim's death and gave conflicting statements to police in response to their questions. The officers asked the defendant whether he was having an affair with the victim and suggested that her death might have been an accident. The defendant denied both assertions. The defendant was arrested and charged with misleading a police officer.

Following his arrest, the defendant continued to make conflicting statements to the police, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his downstairs neighbor. During one jail visit, the defendant told his wife that gang members from Indiana had killed the victim in apparent retaliation for a conflict that they had with him. Weeks later, the defendant told police that he had fabricated this account, and then said that a man he knew named "Jacob Peterson" had killed the victim. By the end of that interview, however, the defendant had agreed that this statement also was fabricated.

The defendant then told the officers that he and the victim had been having a months-long affair. He explained that, on the evening of the victim's death, the two had been having sexual intercourse. He was positioned behind the victim, whose face was in a pillow, and whose hands were tied, when the victim suddenly went limp. He said that he disposed of the victim's cellular telephone. State police troopers searched for the telephone, but it was never found.

Thereafter, the defendant's explanations concerning what had happened to the victim continued to change. He wrote a letter to his mother-in-law stating that he and the victim were having an affair and also claiming that the victim drugged and raped him; he asserted that the victim blackmailed him into beginning, and continuing, the affair. The defendant also wrote to his former downstairs neighbor, saying that the victim had raped him and that, on the night of the victim's death, he had been hit on the head by a third party, regained consciousness, and awakened to find the victim dead.

b. Trial proceedings. The defendant was indicted on one count of murder in the first degree. At trial, the Commonwealth proceeded on theories of deliberate premeditation, extreme atrocity or cruelty, and felony-murder. The theory of the defense was that the defendant and the victim had been having a consensual affair. The defendant maintained that the victim's death was an accident, following sexual intercourse during which the victim voluntarily allowed herself to be tied up. The defendant moved for a required finding of not guilty at the close of the Commonwealth's case and at the end of all the evidence. The former motion was allowed with respect to the offense of murder in the first degree on a...

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