The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for a man convicted of gunning down Marcus Hall behind a Blue Hill Avenue barbershop, where Hall had brought his four-year-old son for a haircut on June 14, 2016.
The state's highest court concluded that the judge in William Omari Shakespeare's trial "committed prejudicial error" in not letting Shakespeare's lawyer introduce into evidence grand-jury testimony from the man he argued was the real shooter - another guy who had walked into the Hair It Is barbershop not long before Hall was shot six times, including in the head and chest, just outside the place's rear door.
The justices acknowledged that prosecutors had made a strong case to the jury that Shakespeare was guilty of first-degree murder on grounds of both premeditation and extreme atrocity, focused on the fact that Shakespeare and the victim appeared to loudly argue and that Shakespeare left the barbershop about 20 minutes before the shooting, then returned shortly before it and that Hall was shot repeatedly, far more than would be needed to respond to Hall allegedly punching Shakespeare first.
Also, evidence showed strong evidence of Shakespeare's "consciousness of guilt:" Nearby surveillance cameras, including one on a passing MBTA bus, captured a man appearing to be Shakespeare fleeing in a black Camry and police initially could not find him because he had fled to New York, the ruling states.
But Shakespeare's attorney was incorrectly hobbled in his attempt to convince the jury that the real shooter was Mark Edwards, who walked into Hair It Is shortly before Hall was fatally shot, looked at him and then walked out the rear door right before the shooting began.
Edwards testified before a grand jury investigating Hall's shooting - while police were still looking for Shakespeare - but could not be called as a witness in Shakespeare's jury trial because he himself later got shot to death.
Shakespeare's lawyer wanted to introduce Edwards's testimony to point out inconsistencies in it - for example, he told the grand jury he was in the barbershop two hours before he actually was - to help bolster his argument that Edwards, too, had "consciousness of guilt" and so could not be ruled out as the killer.
The judge in the case, however, rejected that attempt, ruling the grand-jury testimony was impermissible hearsay, since Edwards was no longer around to answer questions about it.
The SJC, however, ruled the grand-jury testimony was not, in fact, hearsay under Massachusetts rulings, even aside from the fact that it was not simply some guy babbling somewhere but "recorded testimony" that was critical to the defense case.
"Hearsay is an extrajudicial statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted," but in this case, Shakespeare's attorney wasn't trying to show Edwards was telling the truth about something, but that he was actually lying about it. And by barring its use, the judge kept Shakespeare's lawyer from attempting to convince the jury that Shakespeare was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Although the jury heard extensive testimony regarding Edwards's potential identification as a third-party culprit, they did not hear any evidence that something Edwards said in the context of the investigation, specifically regarding his presence at the scene of the crime, was demonstrably false. Edwards incorrectly told the grand jury that he was at the shop between 9 A.M. and 9:30 A.M. As the shop video demonstrated, Edwards was actually present at 12:17 P.M., within two minutes before the victim was killed. This would have strengthened the defendant's argument that Edwards was the shooter, by supporting an inference of Edwards's consciousness of guilt.
"We recognize that some evidence of Edwards's consciousness of guilt was presented to the jury, i.e., they heard that he deleted much of the data on his cell phone before relinquishing it to police. Further, there was no dispute that Edwards was present at the scene of the murder. The Commonwealth admitted in its opening statement that one set of feet in the corner of the video walking away from the crime scene belonged to Edwards. The jury heard from the barbers, and saw from the video, that Edwards was present in the shop just under two minutes before the victim was killed, briefly looked at the victim, and departed from the shop while using his cell phone. It was established that Edwards lived right near the rear lot of the shop where one could access the parking lot by jumping over a damaged fence. The jury heard that a person with a red shirt was walking from behind the shop onto Landor Road and then onto Blue Hill Avenue within a minute of the gunshots. In addition to the consciousness of guilt evidence that Edwards deleted a significant amount of data on his cell phone before providing it to police, the jury heard that Edwards could not produce a telephone number for Taj, the person he allegedly was speaking to when he left the shop. There was evidence presented that an individual with the same byname as Edwards attempted to discard a bloody shirt after the murder.
"In closing argument, counsel was able to marshal this evidence to argue forcefully that Edwards was the killer. He argued that Edwards, who was not known to the barbers, went into the shop with the sole purpose of marking the victim to be killed, and departed through the woods back to his house. He asked the jury to consider why else Edwards would have deleted the data on his cell phone, and why else police were looking for a bloody shirt on Morton Street. Despite the lack of evidence supporting it at trial, counsel even told the jury that Edwards said he was not there for the shooting.
"Nonetheless, it is impossible to determine whether evidence supporting an inference that Edwards was not forthcoming about his presence at the shop within two minutes of the victim's murder would have tipped the scales in favor of the defendant, particularly where his third-party culprit argument was so well presented. The Commonwealth was able to present evidence that Edwards turned himself over to police in response to the BRIC flyer and willingly gave police his cell phone. In turn, counsel should have been able to present evidence supporting an argument that Edwards may not have been as forthcoming as he appeared. Where Edwards was at the center of the trial, we cannot say that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."