Commonwealth v. Lawson and Commonwealth v. Griffin: Recent Changes in Criminal Responsibility and the Presumption of Sanity

lyons_crystalby Crystal L. Lyons

Case Focus

This past fall, without much portent, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) created a seismic shift in the law of criminal responsibility when it eliminated the “presumption of sanity” in Commonwealth v. Lawson, 475 Mass. 806 (2016). As a result, the presumption of sanity will no longer carry the Commonwealth’s burden of proof and may no longer be considered as evidence of sanity. In fact, juries will no longer even receive an instruction on the presumption of sanity. Id. at 807, 814-815 & n.8. This article addresses Lawson’s explicit guidance, analyzes its application just a week later in Commonwealth v. Griffin, 475 Mass. 848 (2016), and anticipates the questions that both cases implicitly left open.

Before Lawson, when a question of the defendant’s criminal responsibility was raised, courts were required to instruct juries that they may consider that, because a great majority of persons are sane, there was a resulting likelihood that the defendant was sane. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 815 & n. 8. In Lawson, however, the SJC announced that rather than a true legal presumption, the “presumption” of sanity is instead “merely an expression” of the “commonsense understanding” that a defendant is probably sane because most people are sane.

In Lawson, the SJC recast a defendant’s lack of criminal responsibility as an affirmative defense, akin to self-defense. As an affirmative defense, the defendant must first proffer “some evidence” that, “viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant, would permit a reasonable finder of fact to have a reasonable doubt whether the defendant was criminally responsible at the time of the offense.” Id. at 807, 811. After doing so, “the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was criminally responsible.” Id.

Although the SJC appeared to anchor its decision in established precedent, Lawson breaks new ground and will have significant effects in the future. For example, Lawson cited Commonwealth v. Keita, 429 Mass. 843 (1999), for the proposition that the Commonwealth already bore the burden of proving that the defendant was criminally responsible. Previously, however, the Commonwealth’s burden was usually a mere formality where the presumption of sanity alone was sufficient to overcome a challenge. See Lawson, 475 Mass. at 813; cf. Commonwealth v. Vives, 447 Mass. 537, 540 (2006) (characterizing mental illness as a hindrance to the defendant’s ability to form a specific intent rather than as an affirmative defense). Now, however, to prove criminal responsibility, the Commonwealth must establish either:

1)       That at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant did not suffer from a mental disease or defect; or

2)       That if the defendant did suffer from a mental disease or defect, he nonetheless retained the substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness or criminality of his conduct and to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.

Griffin, 475 Mass. at 856 (citing Model Jury Instructions on Homicide 10 (2013)).

The Commonwealth can establish the defendant’s mental capacity at the time of the offense through either circumstantial or medical evidence. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 815-817. The types of circumstantial evidence that can support the inference of sanity are already well-known from prior cases. They include: the circumstances of the offense; efforts to plan the offense; a rational motive to commit the offense; rational decisions made proximate to the offense; efforts to avoid capture; attempts to conceal the offense or the defendant’s role in the offense; words and conduct before, during, and after the offense; and evidence of malingering. Id. “Where, however, this [circumstantial] evidence provides only weak support for a finding of criminal responsibility,” the Court made clear that “the Commonwealth proceeds at its peril if it chooses to offer no expert to rebut a defense expert’s opinion of lack of criminal responsibility.” Lawson, 475 Mass. at 817. Medical evidence is typically presented through expert testimony.

Even though criminal responsibility is not an element of any offense, because the Commonwealth bears the burden of presenting sufficient evidence for a rational fact-finder to find criminal responsibility, a defendant may now seek a required finding of not guilty on the ground that the Commonwealth presented insufficient proof. Id. at 812. A motion for a required finding on that basis can be raised only at the close of all evidence, however, because practically speaking, evidence of such a defense is typically first offered during the defense’s case, after which the Commonwealth is permitted a full opportunity to rebut any such defense. Id. at 816-817. The circumstantial evidence of sanity described above is generally sufficient to overcome a motion for a required finding except when a defense expert’s view of the evidence shows the Commonwealth’s argument for sanity to be “incredible or conclusively incorrect.” Id. at 817-818.

Just six days after deciding Lawson, the SJC applied its new framework in Griffin. Although the Court affirmed the defendant’s first degree murder conviction for killing his young daughter, in analyzing whether the Commonwealth had met its burden of proving criminal responsibility, the Court first highlighted the Commonwealth’s lack of medical expert testimony. Griffin, 475 Mass. at 855-856. This is noteworthy not only because the defendant had not presented an expert (though he had secured funds to hire one) but also because the circumstantial proof of sanity appeared overwhelming. The Commonwealth’s evidence in Griffin mapped perfectly onto the categories identified in Lawson. It showed that the defendant: acted normally in the days leading up to the killing; before the crime, prepared a last will and testament and left a note at his home apologizing for his “sins” and asking for God’s mercy; had a strong motive for the killing, which he had discussed with others; carefully planned the killing, including assembling all the necessary materials, choosing to walk to minimize the sound of his approach, turning off the electricity to the house and taking off his shoes upon his arrival to reduce the chance of being discovered, and cutting telephone lines to eliminate calls for help; and methodically cleaned the basement crime scene and repacked his materials after the murder. Id. at 856-857. The defendant’s only evidence of lack of criminal responsibility consisted of self-serving pre-trial statements in which he had claimed that God told him to commit the murder (even though there was no indication he was deeply religious or possessed religious materials) and had described the severity of his mental illness (descriptions which were proven by evidence at trial to be overstated). Id. at 857. By highlighting the Commonwealth’s absence of a prosecution expert in these circumstances, Griffin raises the question whether the prosecution should consider using an expert even in the cases that seem to least warrant one.

The Court clarified that a prosecutor may properly address in closing argument the inferences to be drawn from circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the defendant’s evidence as that evidence bears on criminal responsibility; in so doing, he or she “does not testify as an unqualified expert witness.” Id. at 860. The Court also clarified that Lawson’s elimination of the instruction on the presumption of sanity was not merely a prospective change. The Court concluded that the instruction had been erroneously provided in Griffin, but that it had not created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice where “the trial judge strongly and specifically instructed that the burden is on the Commonwealth to the prove criminal responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt” and where “substantial evidence” supported the jury’s finding of criminal responsibility. Id. at 862-863.

Although Lawson’s and Griffin’s affirmation of the convictions might suggest it will be business-as-usual in criminal responsibility cases despite the Court’s shift, the cases raise several important questions. First, what quantum of proof will be necessary for a defendant to sufficiently raise “some evidence” of a criminal responsibility defense, particularly if the defendant presents no direct medical evidence or testimony (whether because expert testimony cannot be secured or perhaps because no previous treatment or diagnosis exists) and relies solely on arguably self-serving statements to sustain the defendant’s burden of production? Second, under what circumstances may a defense expert’s testimony show the Commonwealth’s evidence to be “incredible or conclusively incorrect” and thereby insufficient to overcome a motion for a required finding of not guilty? One can imagine a situation in which an expert testifies that the inferences argued by the Commonwealth are invalid given the defendant’s diagnosis and that the circumstantial evidence presents normal or expected symptoms of the claimed mental illness. Finally, what differences may exist between sufficient evidence to sustain the Commonwealth’s burden of proof of criminal responsibility under the familiar Latimore standard—viewing all evidence and resolving all inferences in favor of the Commonwealth—and what may be necessary to establish “substantial evidence” of criminal responsibility in pre-Lawson cases where the presumption of sanity instruction has already been provided?

The Commonwealth will need to evaluate carefully whether to call an expert in any case that raises a potential criminal responsibility defense. Despite the Court’s assurances in both cases that “the Commonwealth need not offer expert testimony in every case,” Lawson, 475 Mass. at 807; Griffin, 475 Mass. at 855-856, the SJC highlighted in Griffin the lack of an expert for the Commonwealth. That the Court would do so in a case with overwhelming circumstantial evidence of sanity—and no defense expert testifying to the contrary—suggests that the cautious approach for the Commonwealth to avoid the possibility of reversal will be to call a prosecution expert nonetheless. Lawson, 475 Mass. at 817.

Crystal L. Lyons is an Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals & Training Bureau of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, where she also serves as Captain of the Mental Health Team.  She is a member of the BBJ Board of Editors. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.

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