District Attorney for Suffolk Dist. v. Watson

Decision Date28 October 1980
Citation411 N.E.2d 1274,381 Mass. 648
PartiesDISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR the SUFFOLK DISTRICT v. James WATSON and others. 1
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

William P. Homans, Jr., Boston (John Reinstein, Boston, with him), for James Watson.

Stephen L. Saltonstall, Boston (Ann Lambert Greenblatt, Boston, with him), for John Real.

Barbara A. H. Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen., for Attorney General.

Newman Flanagan, Dist. Atty., pro se (Michael J. Traft, Asst. Dist. Atty., and Rosalind Henson Miller, Sp. Asst. Dist. Atty., with him).

Henry P. Arsenault, amicus curiae, pro se, submitted a brief.

Jeanne Baker, Daniel Featherston, Andrew Good, Joseph S. Oteri, Boston, P. J. Piscitelli, Brockton, Harvey A. Silverglate and Martin G. Weinberg, Boston, for Massachusetts Ass'n of Criminal Defense Lawyers, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Before HENNESSEY, C. J., and QUIRICO, BRAUCHER, KAPLAN, WILKINS, LIACOS and ABRAMS, JJ.

HENNESSEY, Chief Justice.

On January 9, 1980, the plaintiff in his capacity as district attorney for the Suffolk district, filed a complaint in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County seeking a declaratory judgment or, in the alternative, relief under this court's general superintendence powers under G.L. c. 211, § 3. The complaint sought a determination of the constitutionality of the recently enacted capital punishment statute, c. 488 of the Acts of 1979. The Commonwealth and the judges of the Superior Court were named as defendants. The single justice allowed the motion of the Attorney General to intervene as a defendant. The single justice also allowed the Attorney General's motion to dismiss filed on behalf of the Commonwealth and the judges of the Superior Court, and permitted the intervention of four men as defendants, all of whom are awaiting trial on first degree murder indictments which may subject them to the death penalty under the statute. The parties filed a statement of agreed facts. Thereafter, on a motion joined by all the parties, the single justice reserved and reported the case to the full bench of this court.

Two issues are before this court today: (1) whether the court may entertain a suit for a declaratory judgment concerning the validity of c. 488 of the Acts of 1979 during the pendency of a criminal prosecution brought pursuant to the contested chapter, and (2) whether c. 488 of the Acts of 1979 violates art. 26 of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution. We conclude that under the particular circumstances of these cases declaratory relief is the appropriate vehicle for resolving the constitutionality of the statute in question. We conclude furthermore that c. 488 of the Acts of 1979 contravenes the prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment contained in art. 26 of the Declaration of Rights on each of two grounds: (1) the death penalty is unacceptably cruel under contemporary standards of decency, and (2) the death penalty is administered with unconstitutional arbitrariness and discrimination. 2 The Statute.

The general design of c. 488 is to provide a dual procedure when a defendant is charged with murder in the first degree. The first phase is to consist of trial of the charge. If the jury 3 find the defendant guilty, then there is a second, separate presentencing hearing before the same jury in which argument and evidence may be adduced relevant to certain factors or standards described in the statute intended to single out those offenders who merit capital punishment. The jury are to decide on the evidence thus brought forward whether sentence of death, rather than life imprisonment, is to be imposed. When sentence of death is passed, there is a special review by the Supreme Judicial Court to guard further against arbitrary or capricious imposition of the death penalty.

To describe the four sections of the statute in greater detail: Section 1 prefaces the substantive requirements of the remaining three sections with a general declaration of the utility of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime and the appropriateness of such punishment being imposed by the Legislature. Section 2 amends c. 265 of the General Laws to provide that those convicted of murder in the first degree may only suffer the punishment of death pursuant to procedures set forth in those amendments to G.L. c. 279, §§ 53-56, enacted in § 3.

Section 3 of c. 488 would add to G.L. c. 279 the four new sections (§§ 53-56) mentioned above which describe the sentencing procedure. On the return of a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree a presentencing hearing would be held before the same jury to determine the punishment to be imposed. Argument on both sides would be presented, the Commonwealth presenting the opening argument and the defendant presenting the closing argument, and evidence would be received to assist the jury in determining whether any mitigating or aggravating circumstances, as defined in § 54, exist and whether to recommend that the death penalty be imposed. If the sentence of death is reversed on appeal for error found only in the presentencing hearing, any new trial would relate only to the issue of punishment (§ 53).

The imposition of the death penalty is limited to those cases in which one or more of the enumerated statutory aggravating offenses are found to exist beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, the jury are permitted to consider any other appropriate aggravating or mitigating circumstances, some of these mitigating circumstances being enumerated in the statute (§ 54(b )). The jury must find a statutory aggravating circumstance before recommending a sentence of death, but need not find any mitigating circumstance in order to make a binding recommendation of mercy.

Included in the aggravating matter that might be entertained are twelve statutory aggravating circumstances which point more particularly to the nature of the offense or the kind of victim or offender (§ 54(a )). Illustrative are: "(1) The offense of murder was committed on the victim who was killed while serving in the performance of his duties as a police officer, firefighter, or correctional officer; (2) The offense of murder was committed by a person who had previously been convicted of the crime of murder in the first degree"; "(11) The offense of murder was committed by a person in connection with the commission of rape or an attempt to commit rape on the victim." (The other statutory aggravating circumstances are reproduced in the margin. 4 ) Mitigating matter would include five statutory circumstances (§ 54(b )) of which the following are illustrative: "(1) The offense of murder was committed by one with no history of prior criminal activity"; "(5) The age or mental capacity of the defendant at the time of the crime." (The other statutory mitigating circumstances are reproduced in the margin. 5 )

The appropriate statutory instructions must be given in writing to the jury for their deliberations (§ 54(b )). The jury must designate in writing the aggravating circumstance or circumstances (of which at least one must be a statutory aggravating circumstance) which they find beyond a reasonable doubt and upon which they base their unanimous recommendation of death. Where such a statutory aggravating circumstance is found and a recommendation of death is made, the judge must impose the death sentence (§ 55). If a recommendation of death supported by a finding of at least one of the statutory aggravating circumstances is not made by the jury, then the judge may not impose the death sentence except that no finding of statutory aggravating circumstance is necessary in offenses of treason or aircraft hijacking (§ 55). 6

There would be an automatic review by the Supreme Judicial Court of any death sentence imposed (§ 56(a )). Besides considering any errors of law claimed to have been committed in the sentencing proceeding (§ 56(b )), the court would consider the propriety or fairness of the punishment itself according to stated criteria, one of which examines "whether the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor" (§ 56(c )(1)). In order to comply with § 4 of the statute, the court must include in its decision "a reference to similar cases which it took into consideration" (§ 56(e )), the records of such cases being accumulated and extracts being provided to the court by the executive secretary to the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court. In addition to its authority regarding correction of errors, the Supreme Judicial Court has authority to affirm the sentence of death or to set aside the sentence of death and remand the case for resentencing by the trial judge (§ 56(e )).

The Facts as to the Four Defendants.

The facts pertaining to each of the four defendants, as presented in the parties' statement of agreed facts, can be summarized as follows. In January, 1980, the Suffolk County grand jury indicted the defendant James Watson for the crime of murder in the first degree. The indictment charges that "James J. Watson on the 16th of November, 1979, did assault and beat one Jeffrey S. Boyajian with intent to murder him and by such assault and beating did kill and murder the said Jeffrey S. Boyajian." On January 24, 1980, the defendant Watson was arraigned and is currently awaiting trial. The district attorney has announced that he will seek the imposition of the death penalty for the defendant Watson on the basis that one of the statutory aggravating circumstances is present in this case, namely, that "the offender committed the offense of murder for himself or another, for the purpose of receiving money or any other thing of monetary value."

On February 6, 1980, the Suffolk County grand jury indicted the defendants Lawrence Licciardi and Michael Amann for the crimes of murder in the first degree, kidnapping, and two counts of rape of a child....

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  • State v. Santiago
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 25, 2015
    ...the standard of the people of Georgia, not the national standard" [internal quotation marks omitted]); District Attorney v. Watson, 381 Mass. 648, 661, 664-65, 411 N.E.2d 1274 (1980) (holding that death penalty violated state constitution on basis of contemporary standards of decency in Mas......
  • State v. Santiago
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 25, 2015
    ...light of the fact that it is essentially a moral decision rather than a legal one. See, e.g., District Attorney v. Watson, 381 Mass. 648, 693, 411 N.E.2d 1274 (1980) (Quirico, J., dissenting). In other words, the majority determines that capital punishment is unconstitutional because it is ......
  • Com. v. Colon-Cruz
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    • October 18, 1984
    ...HENNESSEY, C.J., and WILKINS, LIACOS, ABRAMS, NOLAN, LYNCH and O'CONNOR, JJ. LIACOS, Justice. In District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. v. Watson, 381 Mass. 648, 411 N.E.2d 1274 (1980), this court declared unconstitutional the capital punishment statute, c. 488 of the Acts of 1979. The cou......
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    ...uncertainty about their options, which may have an impact on their end-of-life decisions. See District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. v. Watson, 381 Mass. 648, 660, 411 N.E.2d 1274 (1980) (issuance of declaratory judgment on constitutionality of death penalty was warranted where it would af......
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