The Supreme Judicial Court today overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a man who got into an argument that ended when another guy shot at him and wound up killing a woman standing a block away before the start of the J'Ouvert parade on Blue Hill Avenue in August, 2014.
The court did not dismiss the murder case against Winston Colas, who was convicted for first-degree murder for Dawnn Jaffier's murder even though he did not pull the trigger, but instead ordered a new trial on a charge of second-degree murder, which also carries a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole at some point.
The court did uphold Colas's conviction for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon for a second woman Williams shot, even farther down Blue Hill Avenue, because that crime, unlike first-degree murder of the sort Colas was convicted of, does not require proof of "intent" to harm somebody, just proof that the crime happened.
In 2017, Suffolk County prosecutors convinced a jury that because Colas had pulled a gun on Keith Williams, the man who wound up shooting Jaffier, he was as much to blame for her death as Williams.
At trial, prosecutors used a legal theory known as "the doctrine of transferred intent," which lets a jury convict somebody of first-degree murder even if his intent was to kill one person but he wound up doing something that led to the death of an entirely different person, in this case Jaffier, 26, of Brighton.
But the state's highest court ruled today that prosecutors failed to prove that Colas had the intent to kill Williams, even if he wound up retrieving a gun and then pointing it at him, because it offered no proof the gun was loaded, had raked it or was in the process of firing or even running at Williams when Williams shot at him and missed.
The act of pointing a firearm at someone is not, standing alone, sufficient "use" of that firearm to infer an intent to kill.
The court acknowledged that prosecutors tried to make the case that Colas had plenty of intent:
The defendant had been involved in a "tense situation" inside the convenience store with Williams's companions, Reed and Joyce, and the dispute escalated when the men went outside, where Tevan [a friend of Colas's] exchanged "hostile words" with Reed and Joyce. The defendant then left the area to retrieve a firearm. He returned and,while armed, walked with Tevan towards the corner where Williams and his group stood; while they were walking, Tevan told the defendant, "Just keep calm, this will all be over in a second." The defendant "then raised his arm and pointed it in the direction of Williams's group, which was less than [one hundred] feet away."
But, the court concluded.
[T]here is no evidence that the defendant possessed a loaded firearm, did anything "so that the gun could be fired at any moment" or chased down the intended target to finish him off. There also is no evidence that the defendant fired the gun either before or after Williams fired at him. The fact that, in the midst of an argument, the defendant pointed a firearm at an opponent is not enough to carry the Commonwealth's burden. ...
The remaining potential evidence of intent consisted of Tevan's statement, "Just keep calm, this will all be over in a second." It is possible, as the Commonwealth suggests, that Tevan's remark implied killing Williams as a means of quickly settling the dispute. It also is possible, however, that the comment referred to publicly running the Williams group off the crowded street where the parade was to take place,or some other less sinister alternative. While we recognize that this is a close call, the Commonwealth did not meet its burden to prove that the defendant consciously and purposefully intended to kill Williams.
After determining that, however, the court was not going to left Colas off the hook, and said that rather than grounds for acquittal, the ruling was grounds for a new trial on a charge of second-degree murder:
A careful review of the entire record shows that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, a reasonable juror could have found the defendant had an intent to commit an act that, in the circumstances known to him, created a plain and strong likelihood of death. Thus, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the jury could have determined that there was sufficient evidence of... "depraved heart" malice to convict the defendant of murder in the second degree. ...
In particular, a reasonable juror could have concluded from the evidence introduced at trial that the act of pointing a firearm at a rival, on a crowded street, likely would provoke a deadly response, thereby demonstrating an indifference to human life.