The Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday overturned Abdullah Yasin's conviction for second-degree murder for Chaz Burton's 2016 death outside a Mattapan party, saying the trial judge in the case should not have allowed the case to go to a jury after she concluded Suffolk County prosecutors had failed to produce evidence that showed Yassin was responsible for Burton's death.
In its decision, the state's highest court said Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders managed to make decisions that harmed both Burton's case and the prosecution's case, but that because Burton's constitutional right to due process was harmed, it was ruling for him and dismissing his case.
A Suffolk Superior Court jury had convicted Yasin of second-degree murder for Burton's stomping and shooting murder early on March, 2016 outside 227 River St. A co-defendant was convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Both men had been charged with first-degree murder for Burton's death in a fight involving two groups.
After prosecutors concluded making their case to the jury in March, 2018, Yasin's attorney filed a motion asking the judge to issue a "required finding of not guilty." In a hearing on the motion, the SJC writes in its summary of the case, Sanders agreed prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Yasin caused Burton's death:
"[T]he judge observed that murder premised on a theory of extreme atrocity or cruelty was 'totally unsupported' by the evidence. In addition, she noted that there was no evidence as to the identity of the shooter or the circumstances under which the shooter had acted. The judge summarized the Commonwealth's case as, 'some unknown person came down in the middle of [a] melee and shot [the victim] as he was apparently waving a knife' at others, after having stabbed 'at least' two people. Based on the evidence of the victim's conduct, the judge said that 'there [was] certainly evidence raised of self-defense, [and] defense of others, enough so that the Commonwealth then [had] to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator was not acting in self-defense' or in defense of others. The judge also said that the Commonwealth had failed to present any such evidence and thus that the Commonwealth had not proved that the killing was unlawful. She noted, as well, that the Commonwealth had presented no evidence that the defendant had aided or abetted the shooter. For all practical purposes, the judge thus deemed the evidence insufficient to convict the defendant of murder."
But despite her misgivings, Sanders then decided to take no action on the case, saying she reserved that right until after the jury made its decision. She similarly "reserved" any action after Yasin's lawyer repeated the request after the close of Yasin's case - in which Yasin was not called, because his attorney felt the case was so weak. But the jury found Yasin guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life, with the possibility of parole after at least 15 years.
Yasin's attorney then filed a similar motion to dismiss the case, and this time Sanders agreed, issuing a nunc pro tunc ruling (from the Latin for "now for then," essentially, to overturn an earlier ruling) overturning the murder charge (Yasin was also convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; he did not appeal his 2 1/2-year sentence for that).
In a hearing on the post-verdict motion, Sanders told both sides that she figured the jury would conclude, as she had, that prosecutors had failed to make their case and that jurors would find Yasin not guilty, because her experience had taught her that "juries are able to recognize when a case is founded on speculation or conjecture, and they will return a of not guilty, thus making it unnecessary for me to intervene." Also, "no rational jury following the instructions I gave them could have concluded that there was an unlawful killing.”
She added that had she granted the motion to dismiss before the jury ruled, that would legally let the DA appeal her decision to appellate courts and "then the time and expense invested in selecting a jury and presenting evidence at trial would be wasted."
She then granted Yasin's motion, in part because "the verdict was based on emotion rather than reason and therefore was not consonant with justice."
The DA's office then appealed.
In its ruling, the justices concluded that the way Sanders did not act on Yasin's motion until after the trial was a violation of his rights, but that the judge's decision to essentially overturn the verdict was also wrong:
"When the judge reserved decision on the defendant's motion for a directed verdict at the close of the Commonwealth's case, she deprived the defendant of his right to insist that the Commonwealth prove each element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt before he decided whether to rest or to present a defense. Such prejudice is manifest where, as here, the judge indicates at the time of the reservation that she strongly favors allowing the motion. Immediately prior to reserving a decision, the judge observed that the Commonwealth had presented no evidence to identify the killer or the circumstances under which the shooter acted, or to show that the killing was unlawful, given evidence that the shooter may have acted in self-defense or in defense of others. In addition, the judge noted that murder predicated on extreme atrocity or cruelty was 'totally unsupported' by the evidence. In effect, the judge told the parties that the Commonwealth had presented insufficient evidence to convict the defendant of murder. After the judge made these statements, however, the trial proceeded, and the defendant was put to the choice of deciding whether to rest or to present a defense.
Writing for the United States Supreme Court in Smith v. Massachusetts, 543 U.S. 462, 471-472 (2005), Justice Antonin Scalia explained that "when, as here, the trial has proceeded to the defendant's presentation of his case, the possibility of prejudice arises." A 'false assurance of acquittal on one count may induce the defendant to present defenses to the remaining counts that are inadvisable.' Id. at 472. 'The seeming dismissal' of an indictment 'may induce a defendant to present a defense to the undismissed charge when he would be better advised to stand silent.' Id. See Cote, 15 Mass. App. Ct. at 240."
The justices added:
"Because the defendant's motion under rule 25 (a) [of state trial rules] was filed at the close of the Commonwealth's case, the judge was required to rule on it 'at that time.' "
And that hurt prosecution, because nunc pro tunc rulings are supposed to apply just to such things as clerical errors in the court record, not to fundamental issues of guilt or innocence.
But, given the seriousness of the violation of Yasin's rights, the court added, it was ruling for him and reversing the verdict. Prosecutors, it continued, had no right to appeal the judge's decision, but just in this case, the court said.