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SJC orders new trial in 1984 killing, but does not address felony-murder rule

The seven justices’ chairs at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The seven justices’ chairs at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The highest court in Massachusetts has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of murder more than three decades ago. But the state Supreme Judicial Court stopped short of addressing the so-called "felony-murder rule," a former law that allowed the state to charge people involved in a crime with murder, even if they weren't the individual who did the killing.

Tuesday's unanimous ruling said that Joseph Jabir Pope should receive a new trial because the commonwealth did not disclose potentially exculpatory evidence regarding the only witness linking Pope to the murder.

"We conclude that the Commonwealth's nondisclosure of this evidence — which goes to the credibility of the Commonwealth's key and only percipient witness, with whom this case rises and falls — constituted a violation of its Brady obligation to disclose all exculpatory evidence and prejudiced the defendant," Justice David Lowy wrote in the unanimous ruling.

Charged under the felony-murder law, Pope received a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 1984 murder of Efrain DeJesus. The SJC changed the law in 2017, but did not make the decision retroactive.

The court said Pope’s defense should have been provided a report by former Suffolk County prosecutor Robert Goodale who responded to the Dorchester scene the night of the murder. That report indicated inconsistencies in the statements made by Bienvenido DeJesus, the victim's brother and a key government witness.

Lowy wrote that, because of the violations by prosecutors, the court did not have to determine whether to apply its 2017 revision of felony murder to Pope's case. In that revision, the justices determined that for a murder conviction, prosecutors would have to prove that defendants like Pope, who committed no physical violence, shared an intent to kill.

Pope's attorney, Jeffrey Harris, said he's not surprised that the high court didn't take up the felony-murder rule, but said he hopes the SJC will do so in the future. Harris said Pope is "thrilled" by the ruling and he is grateful for the court review.

"I really appreciate the SJC issuing a very considered and detail-oriented decision," Harris said. "It's gratifying to see that they looked deeply into this case and saw problems with the nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence."

In December, Pope was released from prison while the court heard his case. Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden will now decide whether he'll face a new trial.

"We are reviewing the Joseph Pope decision in its entirety, and we are assessing the options before us in a case nearly four decades old," said a statement from Hayden's office "We respect Mr. Pope’s desire for a timely decision and we will act accordingly."

Shortly after the ruling was issued Tuesday, Suffolk Superior Court judge Debra Squires-Lee granted a stay of sentence to Pope's co-defendant, 71-year-old Floyd Hamilton. He was convicted in a separate trial of murdering DeJesus. Hamilton's attorney, Merritt Schnipper, said a hearing will be held soon on the condition's for Hamilton's release.

"I couldn't be more thrilled for him and for the notion of justice," Schnipper said. "It's wonderful to think that there is a piece of evidence the government was supposed to disclose in the 1980s and never did, and that error that led to a person serving a life sentence is being corrected after a long delay."

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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