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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Erroneous Conviction Claims

by Matt Clarke

On November 23, 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a pair of opinions that clarify the requirements for suing the state for compensation following an erroneous conviction. Specifically, the Court clarified the requirement that the conviction must be reversed “on grounds which tend to establish innocence,” as set forth in G.L. c. 285D.

Humberto Guzman was convicted of trafficking, distribution and conspiracy to deliver cocaine. His convictions were reversed after he spent four years in prison. Guzman had maintained that two police detectives who testified they had observed him dealing cocaine had actually observed his cousin. The prosecution maintained that Guzman and his cousin were the same person.

Guzman’s attorney had also represented two men who were convicted of having purchased cocaine from Guzman based on the testimony of the same two police detectives. Although he knew they could testify that Guzman was not the person who sold them the cocaine, the attorney didn’t call them as witnesses at Guzman’s trial because he felt there was a conflict of interest with their defenses. Guzman’s case was overturned based on ineffective assistance of counsel due to his attorney’s conflict of interest.

Guzman was not retried because the two detectives had since been indicted by federal authorities for falsifying search warrant affidavits and stealing evidence. Their indictment specifically mentioned a large quantity of stolen money in Guzman’s case.

Guzman then filed an erroneous conviction claim pursuant to chapter 258D in state court. The court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Guzman could not prove he was eligible for relief. Guzman appealed, and the appellate court reinstated his claim. The state appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The Court held that the grounds for reversal of Guzman’s criminal conviction did tend to indicate he was innocent even if the reversal was couched in terms of ineffective assistance of counsel. All that mattered was “that the excluded evidence was probative of the conclusion that the culprit was someone else.” See: Guzman v. Commonwealth, 458 Mass. 354, 937 N.E.2d 441 (Mass. 2010).

In the second case, Shawn Drumgold had been convicted of murder. After twelve years in prison his conviction was reversed due to several eyewitness recantations, the new revelation that another eyewitness had been suffering from terminal brain cancer at the time of the crime and when she testified at trial, and the suppression of exculpatory evidence that one of the witnesses had been given “promises, rewards and inducements” for his testimony and had falsely testified to the contrary at trial. The state then dropped the charges against Drumgold because it no longer could determine whether he was innocent or guilty.

Drumgold sought chapter 258D compensation in state court. The state moved for summary judgment, claiming he couldn’t prove that his conviction was vacated on grounds that tended to show his innocence. The court denied the motion based upon the intermediate appellate ruling in Guzman, and the state appealed.

Applying the Guzman standard that the conviction was reversed on “grounds resting upon facts and circumstances probative of the proposition that [he] did not commit the crime,” the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of summary judgment to the state defendants in Drumgold’s case.

The Court held that Drumgold could proceed to trial but would bear the burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted, in order to obtain compensation under chapter 258D. See: Drumgold v. Commonwealth, 458 Mass. 367, 937 N.E.2d 450 (Mass. 2010).

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Related legal cases

Drumgold v. Commonwealth

Guzman v. Commonwealth