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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wrestling With The Truth: Appeals Court Of Massachusetts Affirms Convictions Of Men Who Assaulted Paul Pierce

I've noted the strange state of evidence law in Massachusetts in previous posts, and some of those eccentricities were on full display in the recent opinion of the Appeals Court of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. Ragland, 2008 WL 4530626 (Mass.App.Ct. 2008), which affirmed the convictions of two men who attacked Boston Celtics' star Paul Pierce in a nightclub eight years ago.  According to the evidence presented at trial:

     "In the late evening of September 24, 2000, continuing to the early morning of September 25, a crowd of about 300 men and women gathered at the Buzz Club in Boston for dancing and drinking at an after hours party. Paul Pierce-the victim of the stabbing attack-and two of his friends, Derrick and Tony Battie, arrived at the club shortly before 1:00 a.m. At one point during the party Pierce was talking to two women, Delmy Suarez and Keisha Lewis. The defendant [William] Ragland, who is Lewis's cousin, was standing nearby. Words were exchanged between the defendant and Pierce. A fight erupted. Other individuals, estimated by witnesses to be eight in number-and one of whom was identified as the defendant [Trevor] Watson-joined Ragland in what escalated to a full scale attack on Pierce. The attack was vicious and sustained. Pierce described punches landing all over his body, a hit to his head with a bottle, and stinging, piercing thrusts to his abdomen and back, which left several deep stab wounds."

Ragland was thereafter convicted of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, a knife, but no witness at trial was able to put a knife in his hand at the time of the fight.  While several eyewitnesses testified at trial that Ragland and Watson attacked Pierce, Krystal Bostick, the only witness who had testified before the grand jury that Ragland attacked Pierce with a knife, recanted her testimony at trial.  Nonetheless, during trial, the prosecutor was able to introduce Bostick's grand jury testimony, which obviously played a huge role in both Ragland's conviction and his appeal to the Appellate Court of Massachusetts.

Now, if Ragland's case were being heard under the Federal Rules of Evidence, his argument that Bostick's grand jury testimony should not have been admissible as substantive evidence would have been without any merit.  That is because Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A), "[a] statement is not hearsay if...[t]he declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement, and the statement is...inconsistent with the declarant's testimony, and was given under oath subject to the penalty of perjury at a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, or in a deposition."  And clearly Bostick testified and was subject to cross-examination at Ragland's trial, and her prior statements concerning the knife were both given under oath at a (grand jury) hearing and inconsistent with her testimony at trial.

As I have noted before, however, Massachusetts

     "does not have an officially adopted code of evidence.  Instead, Massachusetts evidence law derives from a mishmash of common law, statutes, procedural rules, federal and state constitutions, the Federal Rules of Evidence, and the Massachusetts Proposed Rules of Evidence (which were never adopted). See Jeffrey S. Siegel, Note, Timing Isn't Everything, 79 B.U. L. Rev. 1241, 1244 (1999)."

And so while Massachusetts does have a Proposed Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A) that is similar to its federal counterpart, it actually applies a unique test for determining the admissibility of inconsistent grand jury testimony.  Under that test,

     "The foundational requirements for the admissibility of the inconsistent grand jury testimony are that (1) the witness can be effectively cross-examined at trial regarding the accuracy of the statement; and (2) the statement was not coerced and was more than a mere confirmation or denial of an allegation by the interrogator, i.e., the statement must be that of the witness and not of the interrogator....In addition, a further requirement is that when that testimony concerns an essential element of the crime, the Commonwealth must offer at least some corroborative evidence if there is to be sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction."

Even though this test is more rigorous than the federal test, however, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts found that it was satisfied because Bostick could be effectively cross-examined and the statements were not found to have been coerced.  And while no other witness could place a knife in Ragland's had, Bostick's grand jury testimony was corroborated by other evidence at trial, such as "trial evidence concerning the witness Regina Henderson, who saw blood on the defendant Ragland's hand just after the stabbing and the defendant's efforts to wash the blood off."

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/10/paul-pierce-htt.html

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