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Massachusetts Erroneous Conviction Statute and Insufficient Evidence Cases

Massachusetts law allows a person who has been the subject of an erroneous conviction to pursue a claim for compensation.  To recover, a person must first show that he or she is eligible as a member of the class set forth under the statute and then must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he or she did not commit the offense.  The Supreme Judicial Court recently considered the application of the erroneous conviction statute in a case where the conviction was overturned on appeal based on insufficient evidence.

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In Renaud v. Commonwealth, the underlying criminal case involved an alleged home break-in and related theft.  A police officer found an EBT card on the floor of the home.  The card had been cut into pieces and taped together. Although the homeowner did not recognize the name on the card, the police officer did.  The police called the man named on the card and told him he could come to the police station to retrieve it, but he never came.

The man was convicted of malicious destruction of property, breaking and entering in the daytime, and larceny over $250, but the appellate court reversed the convictions and set aside the verdicts.  The Appeals Court held that the evidence was not sufficient to prove he was the person who committed the crimes, finding that the conviction had been based primarily on the presence of the card.  The Appeals Court found that, although the card may have once been in the man's possession, there was no evidence he had it at the time of the crime.  Furthermore, the fact it had been cut up and taped suggested its owner had discarded it.  The Appeals Court found the Commonwealth's evidence that the man had lived in the same town where the crime occurred and was known to police to be evidence that he had the ability to commit the crime, not that he had actually done so.

After the appellate decision, the man filed suit under the erroneous conviction statute.  Pursuant to the statute, eligible persons include "those who have been granted judicial relief by a state court of competent jurisdiction, on grounds which tend to establish the innocence of the individual..." if the felony conviction is vacated or reversed and the indictment or complaint has been dismissed and no criminal proceeding is pending or can be brought against the person for any act related to the conviction.

The Commonwealth moved to dismiss, but the trial court denied the motion.  The Commonwealth then appealed.

Previous case law has held that eligibility under the statute is not limited to people whose convictions were overturned based on "overwhelming exculpatory evidence," but furthermore includes those whose convictions were overturned based on "facts and circumstances probative of the proposition that the claimant did not commit the crime."

The Commonwealth argued that only people who are actually innocent are eligible for relief under the statute.  The courts, however, recognize two distinct prongs to the statute.  First, the claimant must meet the eligibility requirement, and then the claimant must show that he or she did not commit the crime.  Innocence is not a requirement of eligibility.

The Commonwealth also argued that insufficient evidence of guilt does not necessarily mean the person is innocent.  The Supreme Judicial Court did not disagree with the principle of the argument, but instead addressed the specific facts of the case.  The Court noted that there was no other evidence implicating the man.  In this case, the grounds for the reversal required the man's acquittal.  The court found that the absence of evidence that the man was the one who committed the crime established his eligibility for relief.  The Court affirmed the order denying the motion to dismiss, but it noted that the man will only be able to prevail if he shows by clear and convincing evidence that he did not commit the crimes.

This case is interesting both because of the results of the underlying criminal case and because of the Court's decision regarding the erroneous convictions statute.  The Appeals Court's decision shows that the presence at a crime scene of an object once belonging to the criminal defendant, without additional evidence, is generally insufficient to support a conviction.  The Supreme Judicial Court's decision illustrates that, while a reversal for insufficient evidence may not necessarily equate to factual innocence, such a reversal may be sufficient to support eligibility under the erroneous convictions statute, depending on the specific facts of the case.

If you may be facing charges of a theft crime, an experienced Massachusetts theft crimes attorney can help you.  Call the Law Offices of Richard Mucci at (781) 729-3999 to discuss your case.

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