The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for Demetrius Wardsworth, convicted of first-degree murder, because of errors at his trial by both Suffolk County prosecutors and the judge.
Prosecutors had charged that Wardsworth and an accomplice were members of the Walnut Park Dogs gang, that they blamed the Academy Homes gang for shooting at them as part of a long war between the two gangs and so went to the housing complex on Sept. 20, 2007 determined to shoot the first people they saw. Urel Duncan, prosecutors said, was shot in the head and died because he was sitting on the wrong stoop at the wrong time, that he had nothing to do with the gang feud.
A Suffolk Superior Court jury agreed and found Wardsworth, 18 at the time of Duncan's death, guilty of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic sentence of life without parole.
But the state's highest court found several errors in his trial, which it said were bad enough to warrant overturning his conviction, including the judge allowing "testimony" in the form of statements by his alleged accomplice without letting Wardsworth confront the man who made them and testimony from a police officer that the court said failed to show that Wardsworth was actually a member of the Walnut Park gang, even though proving that was a key to the prosecution's case.
The justices ruled that it was a mistake for the judge in the case to let the prosecutor introduce statements made by Wardsworth's alleged accomplice, Shawn Daughtry, as evidence that contradicted Wardsworth's case.
Normally hearsay is not allowed, but state law allows an exception for statements made by accomplices in a "joint venture," - such as Wardsworth and Daughtry, who was tried separately - teaming up to attack the home turf of their alleged rival gang. The problem, the SJC concluded, was that such statements are only allowed as evidence if they are made during the commission of the crime, while Daughtry made them afterwards, while the two were being questioned separately by police.
And they showed Daughtry was trying to distance himself from Wardsworth, the court said. The court added that because Daughtry's statements were "testimonial," but he did not actualy testify in Wardsworth's case, Wardsworth was denied his constitutional right to confront an accuser.
But was that enough to warrant a new trial, by possibly influencing the jury enough to convict Wardsworth? The court noted the prosecutor in the case made a big deal of Daughtry's statements to police in her closing argument to the jury and "argued that the contradictions [between what Daughtry and Wardsworth told police] proved the defendant's guilt."
The jury thus were left to choose between believing either that Daughtry told the truth and the defendant likely had committed the crimes with Dee, or that Daughtry was covering up his own participation in the crimes and his consciousness of guilt could be imputed to the defendant. In either case, Daughtry's statements risked influencing the jury's verdicts. Under both our constitutional and nonconstitutional standards of review, the error sufficiently prejudiced the defendant so as to constitute grounds for a new trial.
The court also ruled that a Boston police officer who investigated the case and who testified that Wardsworth was a member of the Walnut Park Dogs actually failed to prove he had evidence of that:
Although Merced had known the defendant from the time the defendant was eight years old, Merced had accumulated relatively little personal knowledge connecting the defendant to any gang. The defendant had never self-identified as a member of any gang. He did not frequent a gang's headquarters, speak with identified gang leaders, or wear gang colors. Merced was aware of graffiti that listed members of the Walnut Park gang, but the defendant's name was not among those listed. Nor was Merced able to link the defendant to any gang by signs, symbols, street names, or tattoos. Rather, during [a closed-door interview with the judge], Merced explained that he believed the defendant belonged to a gang, in part, because the defendant was listed in the Boston regional intelligence center "gang database." ...
That other officers had formed the opinion that the defendant fit the criteria does not constitute proper foundation for Merced's opinion; the gang database entry did not provide Merced with underlying facts or data to which he could apply his own expertise. ... Ultimately, Merced was unsure as to who had entered the defendant's name in the database, or what that officer's reasons had been for doing so. There was no testimony regarding how the database is created or maintained, or what criteria police use to determine whose names are entered in it.
And since the prosecution's theory of why Wardsworth would want to open fire at Academy Homes hinged on him being a member of the Walnut Park gang - as with Daughtry's statements, the prosecutor repeatedly brought up his "gang ties" in her closing argument - the whole case then falls apart, and Wardsworth deserves a new trial, the court said.