The Massachusetts Appeals Court today dismissed William Earl's second-degree murder conviction, ruling his confession that he stabbed Samuel Constant to death in the Georgetown development in Hyde Park was coerced:
The jury heard evidence that minutes after the murder, the defendant confessed that he had just killed someone for "running his mouth." The defendant argues that his confession was the product of custodial interrogation because a special police officer chased, tackled, handcuffed, and pat frisked the defendant before questioning him, and that the confession should have been suppressed because he was not given Miranda warnings. We agree.
The "special" police officer was, in fact, a uniformed security guard employed by Longwood Security, but designated as a "special police officer" by BPD.
The court added that should the Suffolk County District Attorney's office seek to re-try Earl, it can only do so for second-degree murder, rather than first-degree. In either case, conviction would mean a sentence of life, but second-degree murder convictions carry the possibility of parole at some point.
According to the court's summary of the case, Earl and Constant, 19, were in an argument in Constant's girlfriend's apartment on Margaretta Drive on Jan. 9, 2014, when the girlfriend arrived home:
Hunter [the girlfriend] did not know the defendant, and his behavior made her uneasy, so she gestured to Constant to follow her into one of the bedrooms. The defendant followed them into the room, where he pulled a knife from the waistband of his boxer shorts and lunged at Hunter. Constant intervened and began to struggle with the defendant, wrestling him back into the living room. While the defendant and Constant fought, Hunter went to the kitchen to look for something to use as a weapon. She grabbed the first thing she could find, a kitchen utensil, and used it to hit the defendant. The defendant swung his knife at her but missed, then stumbled out the open front door of the apartment, still struggling with Constant. A Georgetowne Homes maintenance supervisor noticed two men running; one of them, Constant, fell to the pavement, face down, and the other ran off. Constant was breathing with difficulty and bleeding from his mouth and nose.
Two uniformed Longwood Security guards, "certified as special Boston police officers" and on patrol in the development, spotted Earl "running down the middle of Crown Point Drive in heavy traffic, knocking on the windshields of passing vehicles and attempting to stop them." They activated their car's roof lights and, as yet unaware of what had just happened, approached Early, bleeding heavily from one ear:
Upon seeing Thermitus [one of the security guards], the defendant fled. Thermitus ran after him, tackled him from behind, placed him in handcuffs, and pat frisked him. ...
According to Tranfaglia [the other security guard], "the defendant stated that he had been shot down the street," although neither officer saw any evidence of gunshot wounds. Tranfaglia stepped away to request assistance from the Boston police and emergency medical services. Thermitus remained with the defendant and asked him "why he ran," to which the defendant replied, "I just killed somebody, and if you walk straight ahead you will find something." Thermitus asked the defendant, "[W]hy?" The defendant responded that "this person was running his mouth, so I did what I had to do."
The court added:
The day after the murder the police recovered a "KA-BAR" brand folding knife near the murder scene. A metal fragment from the knife was found in one of Constant's fatal stab wounds, and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analyses of blood found on the knife's blade and knife's handle were consistent with the DNA profiles of Constant and the defendant, respectively. The statistical probability of random matches was infinitesimally small.
A letter the defendant wrote to Constant's mother from jail two years after the murder was admitted in evidence. In the letter, the defendant "apologize[d] about what happened to your son," claimed that "it was not [his] intention to murder your son," but that he was being attacked and the only way he could escape the apartment was "by assaulting your son and stabbing him twice in his chest area." He added that he used "a kabar pocket knife."
But while the evidence was strong, the court said, in the end, much of it had to be tossed because it all started with what was an illegally obtained confession - on the ground, to a security guard. Because the guard had been designated a "special police officer," he was a "State actor" and so once he had detained Earl - by tackling him, handcuffing him and sitting him against a tree - he had to observe the same Constitutional requirements as regular police officers, in this case, that after he had detained the man and had him in a "coercive environment," he had to inform him of his Miranda rights, the court said.
Here, prior to questioning, two uniformed officers positioned the defendant against a tree next to the side of the road on a cold winter night, after one of them had chased him, tackled him, placed him in handcuffs, and pat frisked him. ... From the defendant's point of view, the officers' actions objectively created a coercive and police-dominated environment, even if it was not in a police station.
The same applies to the questioning. It was not, as a Superior Court judge had ruled, "preliminary" or not something that would require Miranda rights, because Earl was in custody by two uniformed officers who began questioning him what he was doing with blood pouring out of one ear running down the middle of a street - after they had tackled and cuffed him. That made it "custodial interrogation," for which Miranda rights are a required starting point, the court said.
The defendant was subject to custodial interrogation. Because he was not given Miranda warnings, his motion to suppress his statements to Thermitus should have been allowed.
Toss that outdoors confession and prosecutors had no motive with which to press their first-degree murder claim, which required some proof of intent, the court said.
Other than the defendant's confession, the Commonwealth presented no evidence of motive, and the inferential evidence of the defendant's intent to kill Constant was not overwhelming. Indeed, according to Hunter's version of the events, the defendant's actions, which began with an attempt to stab her, were inexplicable. The defendant claimed that he acted in self-defense, as he maintained in his letter to Constant's mother, and the jurors were also instructed on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The evidence that the defendant admitted, shortly after the crime, that he had "just killed somebody" because that person was "running his mouth" was the strongest evidence offered at trial to provide a motive for the defendant's actions, to disprove his self-defense claim, and to prove malice. The prejudicial impact of this evidence was "too strong to be considered harmless." Commonwealth v. Howard, 469 Mass. 721, 737 (2014), S.C., 479 Mass. 52 (2018).
In contrast, the court held that Earl's recorded conversation with a Boston Police detective at a police station five hours later was legal and could be used as evidence - in part because it started with Earl being told his Miranda rights. The problem for prosecutors is that he made no confession during that interview.