Friday, November 2, 2007

October 17, 2007

Every Great Once in a While . . .

Appeals don’t succeed all that often. Appeals by folks convicted of murder, based on an unscientific reading of the appellate cases reported in the Commonwealth, are successful even less often. But today, in Commonwealth v. Morales, 70 Mass. App. Ct. 526 (2007), the Appeals Court ordered in a new trial for Arcangel Morales. He was convicted of murdering a homeless man during a confrontation in 2002.

The victim approached Morales after a female companion complained that Morales had struck her on the chin with a beer bottle a few months earlier. Morales and the victim had words, and the next thing the assembled gaggle knew, the victim had been stabbed twice in the chest and once in the arm. Morales hopped on a bus to visit relatives in Pennsylvania later on that night.

Morales succeeded on his appeal because the trial judge didn’t give a correct instruction on voluntary manslaughter. Boiled to its essence, Morales was claiming he was provoked and stabbed the victim in “the heat of passion.” The judge wasn’t willing to let that happen because nobody had seen Morales and the victim physically touch one another. The Appeals Court said that physical contact wasn’t a necessary prerequisite for Morales to claim he was provoked.

There’s a weird footnote in here, though, that highlights often confusing distinctions between necessity and sufficiency. It’s footnote five, which reads in part: “We are also aware of decisions in which the court has held that physical contact by victims was insufficient to justify such an instruction.” So if physical contact is insufficient, and there was no evidence of physical contact, it seems initially strange that a murder conviction would be overturned because the judge held that physical contact was necessary for Morales to win his manslaughter argument. If you look hard, though, you can see it: physical contact is neither necessary *nor* sufficient for a defendant to avoid a murder conviction. Why the Appeals Court determined that this was better left unexplained is unclear.

No comments: