The Massachusetts Appeals Court on Wednesday upheld Dominic Shiner's conviction for voluntary manslaughter for the stabbing death of Sean Dwyer outside Dwyer's Adams Street barber shop in 2014.
In a 2-1 ruling, the court acknowledged there was no direct evidence that Shiner fatally stabbed his lifelong friend, no fingerprints or DNA to connect him to the death, no witnesses to ID him, no murder weapon ever found after he was discovered lying in the middle of Adams Street, stabbed twice, once to the heart. But, the court continued, prosecutors made a compelling enough case to the jury that other evidence proved Shiner killed Dwyer, likely because Dwyer refused to give him more money to support his heroin habit.
This included testimony from Shiner's former girlfriend, who gave him a ride that night, that "the defendant's hand was wrapped in a bloody makeshift bandage and that his jaw was "swollen" - and testimony that Dwyer had retrieved a metal baton from another friend earlier in the day - a couple days after he had given Shiner $80, in a conversation that other witnesses said had left him very agitated and distracted.
Also placed into evidence: cell-phone data showing Shiner's phone was somewhere in the vicinity of the murder scene after it happened, and grand-jury notes that Shiner, by then in the Nashua Street jail, had marked up and tried to get to a friend, only to have it intercepted first by jail guards, which referenced a pocket knife Dwyer was known to wear clipped to his belt, but which was missing when police found his body on Adams Street.
"With regard to the murder charge, the most important annotation that the jury saw was the defendant's comment -- in reference to a mention by one witness to the victim's pocket knife -- that '[i]t was the [k]nife.' "
Following Shiner's trial in 2018 in Suffolk Superior Court, a judge sentenced him to 14 to 16 years in prison. The appeals court decision today upholds that sentence:
"In the end, this is a case where none of the individual pieces of evidence was particularly strong, but -- taken together -- they reinforced each other so as to provide a basis for a rational juror to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 'As Justice Holmes observed long ago, '[e]vidence which would be colorless if it stood alone may get a new complexion from other facts which are proved, and in turn may corroborate the conclusion which would be drawn from the other facts.'' Commonwealth v. Norman, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 344, 347 (2015), quoting Commonwealth v. Mulrey, 170 Mass. 103, 110 (1898)."
Justices James Milkey and Vickie Henry, who wrote the majority opinion, acknowledged they were troubled by one particular bit of evidence: Video from a neighbor's surveillance camera that showed a man running away from the murder scene. Although it was not clear enough to identify the man, it showed him wearing a light-colored top - when evidence was that Shiner was wearing a dark hoodie later than night. The prosecution introduced the video along with testimony from a BPD detective who said that the camera switched to an infrared sensor at night, on which dark fabric can appear light colored - which he said he proved by having a colleague walk past the camera with a dark shirt on.
But they concluded that while this was not expert testimony - the detective had no professional background in the vagaries of surveillance cameras - it ultimately did not affect the jury's decision, in part because the judge "repeatedly cautioned the jury about what inferences could be drawn from such testimony, even going so far as to suggest it was not "actual evidence" or 'proof of anything.' "
Judge Peter Rubin, however, dissented and called for a new trial, in large part because of the camera issue.
He noted a 2021 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that overturned a murder conviction in part because of erroneous "expert" testimony and said the detective's infrared "experiment" should not have been admitted at all.
"Because the judge improperly allowed the admission in this case of evidence of an unscientific experiment that did not meet those requirements, the defendant in this case was denied a fair trial in exactly that way."
"A surveillance video of the perpetrator in this case was powerful exculpatory evidence. It showed the perpetrator wearing a light-colored "hoodie." The Commonwealth's most important witness testified that the defendant was wearing a dark-colored hoodie that night; a second witness who saw him that night also thought he was wearing a dark hoodie. ...
"The officer's rudimentary experiment appears to have been excellent police work. It warranted careful follow-up to determine whether it could lead to admissible evidence that might validly undermine the apparently exculpatory surveillance video. The Commonwealth, however, never bothered to do any. Instead, it sought to admit evidence of the rudimentary experiment itself."