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Post-Whitey Bulger Trial, William Camuti Charged with Murder

Case Background

While the trial of Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger ended in a conviction for extortion, money laundering, drug dealing and weapons possession, the ramifications of his crime ring have yet to cease. The grand jury recently charged William Camuti, an alleged ally of Whitey Bulger, with the murder of extortion victim Stephen Rakes.

Details of the Murder

According to the authorities, William Camuti arranged a business meeting at a Waltham McDonalds with Stephen Rakes on July 16. Therein, Camuti presented Rakes with a cup of McDonalds iced coffee, which he had laced with two teaspoons of potassium cyanide. The poison acts against the  body’s ability to process oxygen intakes. Accordingly, Rakes was soon to become unconscious. Camuti sent two emails inquiring about the price of  potassium cyanide in the days before Rakes’ death. Police investigation revealed that Rakes took a sip of the coffee and thought it tasted too bitter. Nevertheless, he remained in Camuti’s car and was driven around Waltham, Woburn, Burlington and Lincoln until he eventually died. A jogger found Rakes’ lifeless body in a wooded area in Lincoln the next day, and alerted authorities.

Connection to Whitey Bulger

Stephen Rakes attended Whitey Bulger’s trial on the same day as his meeting with William Camuti. Rakes is just one of the many victims of Bulger’s extortion schemes. Allegedly, Rakes hoped to be on the witness stand in the Bulger trial, but he was dropped from the witness list shortly before the trial. Surveillance videos at the courthouse show Rakes wearing the same clothes he was found in by authorities the next day. Yet, authorities have not linked Rakes’ death to the murder trial. Prosecutors state that Camuti acted alone, not on behalf of Whitey Bulger, in order to settle some debts with Rakes.

Camuti Tried to Take His Own Life

As police investigation progressed, William Camuti seemed to break under the pressure. On July 20th, before his indictment, Camuti cut his wrists in his Sudbury apartment. While Camuti’s lawyer Stanley Norkunas called the incident a “psychiatric episode,” Camuti was clearly impacted by the repercussions of his admission.

William Camuti’s Punishment Under Massachusetts Law

Massachusetts Law Chapter 265, Section 28 states that “whoever mingles poison with food, drink or medicine with intent to kill or injure another person” is liable to life in prison or any term of years.” This punishment, coupled with Camuti’s admission of intent, is thus left to the discretion of the court. Massachusetts Law Chapter 265 Section 2 punishes first degree murder (deliberate and premeditated) with life in prison. Coupled with the poisoning charge, Camuti’s murder charge will most likely result in life in prison for the Sudbury resident.

McCluskey Indicted for Murder of 61-Year Old Couple on Vacation, Trial Continues

Prison fugitive John McCluskey was charged with the murder of Gary and Linda Haas, both 61 years old and on their yearly trip to Colorado. McCluskey shot them, charred their bodies and their trailer, and escaped in their pickup truck along with his two accomplices. McCluskey was serving 15 years in Arizona prison for second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and discharge of a firearm. In 2010, McCluskey and fellow inmate Tracy Province escaped from prison with the help of McCluskey’s fiance (and cousin) Casslyn Welch. On August 2, 2010, McCluskey, Welsh and Province met with their victims at a Texas-New Mexico state line highway stop. The Haas couple had been married for over 40 years and they were on their annual trip from their home in Oklahoma to Colorado in their pickup truck and tractor-trailer. On August 2, McCluskey, Welsh and Province forced the couple to drive to Interstate 40, pushed them into a remote location at gunpoint, and then shot them inside their trailer. Then, McCluskey and his accomplices got rid of the bodies by placing them into the trailer and setting it on fire. Only two days later, a ranch worker discovered the remains of the trailer:skull fragments, eyeglass frames, and Mrs. Haas‘s wedding ring. Authorities were contacted immediately, and the three criminals were captured within three weeks of the nationwide search.

The Prosecution’s Take on the Case and Their Charges Against McCluskey

Prosecutors have been clear on their stance, and sought the capital punishment for McCluskey after examining the evidence in the case. According to prosecutor Greg Fouratt, ultimately this case is about the targeting, the carjacking, the shooting to death and the incineration of a husband and wife. The prosecution’s case is built around the criminals’ cruel murder of two defenseless retirees for their pickup truck. Fouratt is confident that the 50 witnesses and at least 100 exhibits accumulated by the prosecution will convict McCluskey for his crimes.. The prosecution will weave a story about the August 2 meeting between an innocent older couple and a group of murderous prison escapees in order to tear at the jury’s emotions. The prosecution, however, is unafraid to puncture the prosecution’s evidence.

The Defense Is Unafraid To Talk About The Case

Despite the heavy amount of firsthand evidence against McCluskey from the accomplices themselves, defense attorney Michael Burt is confident about his client’s case. Burt stated that the prosecution’s heaviest evidence comes from unreliable sources. McCluskey’s fellow inmate Tracy Province has a history of violent crimes and drug abuse, while McCluskey’s fiancée allegedly lied to the investigators on multiple occasions. Furthermore, both accomplices already made deals with the prosecution enabling them to escape the death penalty, and thus might have a higher interest in saving themselves than being sincere. Nevertheless, McCluskey was arrested wearing Gary Haas’ baseball cap, and evidence as seemingly minute may sway the jury against his case.

The Death Penalty in McCluskey’s Case

The defense is confident that the government will be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McCluskey is guilty. Accordingly, the defense is avoiding the death penalty and stating that the prosecution has no proof that McCluskey shot the Haas couple. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment and thus compels the jury to determine a penalty that is proportional to the crime. In this case, McCluskey not only shot both Gary and Linda Haas, but he also intentionally burned their trailer to get rid of evidence. In a 2002 Ring v. Arizona decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury must find an aggravating factor that will increase the culpability for a criminal act; only then can the judge impose the death penalty rather than a lesser punishment. The McCluskey trial is expected to go on for up to four months of arduous jury work in order to observe the examinations and cross-examinations requisite for McCluskey’s conviction of capital murder (or a lesser punishment if the defense can persuade the jury). Seemingly pulled out of a crime novel, the McCluskey case is one that will resonate with the jury. The murder of two defenseless grandparents compelled media attention and provoked a national visceral response. Accordingly, this would not only be a feat for the prosecution but also a public policy victory.

Witness shielding denied in the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman case

The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin second-degree murder trial has just begun and it’s already raising several significant criminal law issues.  How these matters are decided will affect not only this high-profile criminal trial, but may also impact local criminal trials around the country.  One main concern is whether the witnesses to the incident should be shielded. Witness shielding is the practice of hiding the identity of witnesses from the public order to ensure their safety.

Zimmerman’s Criminal Defense Attorney Seeks To Shield 7 Defense Witnesses From Public View

Here George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, sought to shield the identities of seven of the witnesses that the defense plans to call to testify.  One of the witnesses reportedly is ready to testify about the fight between Zimmerman and Martin.  In a pre-trial motion citing “personal concerns for their safety, “ O’Mara requested that the witnesses be allowed to testify behind a screen – allowing jurors to see them but not reporters.  The judge denied the motion after it was objected to by both the prosecution and reporters.

The Right To Confront Witnesses Against You

Witness shielding is a controversial practice in criminal defense trials and is only allowed in very limited situations.    The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides:

“In criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

The 6th amendment’s “confrontation clause” is based on the premise that people are less likely to lie when they are under oath and facing the accused.  In layman’s terms, the “confrontation clause” requires that witnesses must testify face to face at trial.  When a witness is “shielded,” an accused is denied that face-to-face interaction.

What Methods Are Used To Shield Witnesses?

Witness shielding typically occurs in one of three ways:  Having the witness testify behind a screen so that he or she is only visible to the jurors; having video-taped testimony; or testifying via closed circuit television. Because of its potential constitutional impact,  “witness shielding” is allowed in only limited circumstances.

One area where witness shielding is often discussed is in child sexual abuse trials.  In sex crimes cases, criminal prosecutors may try to minimize the trauma of having young victims testify in court and facing their alleged abusers.  However, even in these situations courts have disagreed over whether allowing shielding techniques violates a criminal defendant’s sixth amendment rights.

In other types of criminal cases, such as murder or other violent crimes, both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are concerned that their witnesses will face retribution if their identity is known.  In these situations, criminal attorneys may suggest that witnesses use a pseudonym or wear a disguise. However, courts are split on whether keeping the identity of a witness anonymous violates a defendant’s rights.  In fact even the Supreme Court of the United States has not even provided clear direction.

Unfortunately this issue creates difficulties for the criminal justice system and may affect a criminal defendant’s ability to get a fair trial.

Whether the witnesses in the Martin/Zimmerman murder trial will still come forward to testify about what they saw that fateful night and whether they will face consequences for doing so, will play out in the next several weeks and months as the second-degree murder trial continues.

Sources:

Zimmerman hearing heats up as lawyers spar, by Tom Winter and James Novograd, U.S. News on NBCNews.com June 5, 2013

Massachusetts Drunk Driving

In recent months there has been a lot of talk regarding Massachusetts drunk driving bench trials.  The Boston Globe did a three part series on how certain judges have an incredible rate of not guilty verdicts.  As a result of the Boston Globe spot light, the Supreme Judicial Court the highest court of in Massachusetts has started an investigation.  The Boston Globe focused their attention on the bench trial portion of the drunk driving process, but it is far from the entire story.  Drunk driving cases tend to be a very emotional topic.  In fact, drunk driving laws have become stricter over time and drunk driving arrests are on the increase. 

The reason the spot light doesn’t tell the entire story is because it doesn’t say what type of people are actually being arrested.  Sure, there are many people that get arrested for and OUI that really shouldn’t have been driving.  Most OUI cases plead out before ever going to either a bench trial or a jury trial. If a person is clearly drunk or has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit the cases generally plead before trial.  The cases that tend to go to trial are that ones that are highly questionable. 

Many OUI cases should go to trial because police are arresting more and more people for OUIs.  Many police stations are getting grants for OUI arrests or to set up sobriety check points.  As you may know, police officers get paid for overtime work.  They can do detail jobs at a bar or direct traffic at a construction site.  Police are very protective over their overtime as it increases the amount of money they can bring home.  There was a fight a few years ago as Governor Patrick wanted to and ended up replacing some police officers with flag men.  Well grant money is different.  The money comes in from a grant and the police are paid.  In order to justify the grant, police need to make OUI arrests.

There are even awards given out to police officers that make the most OUI arrests.  One officer boasted on the stand that he made over 300 OUI arrests a year.  Seeing that the officer didn’t work every day, the officer was on average making 1 or more OUI arrest a day.  There are certainly a portion of police that arrests people for the overtime and others for awards, but most police want to do the right thing.  The problem is no police officer wants to let someone go for an OUI just to have the person crash or for the media to find out.  Police officers can be suspended if not terminated if they let a suspected drunk driver go and later the person gets into a major accident.  I have heard several good police officers say they won’t risk their jobs and will arrest anyone they pull over if they smell alcohol. 

To make matters worse, prosecutors also don’t want to dismiss cases.  Even in cases where the evidence doesn’t support an OUI case.  Prosecutors are so concerned with the media and public opinion that they will continue to prosecute a case no matter the evidence.  Even if the defendant had a breathalyzer reading that was under the legal limit, the defendant will still be charged and prosecuted.  I have seen cases where the defendant blew a .05 and the case still went to trial. 

The Boston Globe spotlight tells one part of the process, but it is far from the entire story.  In Massachusetts, we have police officers so concerned about other things that they will arrest anyone that even smells of alcohol.  Then we have prosecutors so concerned about public opinion that they continue to fight cases even if it lacks evidence.  It is not to say that there are not defendants that are clearly guilty, but the majority if not all of those cases tend to plead out prior to trial.  The cases that go to trial should be tried because police are arresting everyone just in case and prosecutors continue to fight cases they know have a lack of evidence.  In every criminal case, the prosecutor has the burden to prove each case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Because of the lack of evidence in many OUI cases, the prosecutor isn’t able to meet this high burden.  As a result, many cases that goes to trial and justice demands that judges rule for the defendant.  It may not be popular and the media will attack these judges relentlessly, but in many cases, it is right.  

Should you testify at your criminal trial in Massachusetts?

mouth

Mouth taken by Pickersgill Reef

You are charged with a crime in Massachusetts.  You don’t want to plead to your case and now it is time for trial.  One of the questions that you may have is if you should testify at your own trial.  There is no definite right or wrong answer to the question of whether you should testify.  Each case is unique and this question should be discussed and answered by you and your lawyer.  However, here are a few things to think about when thinking about testifying at your own trial. 

In Massachusetts, in any criminal case, the prosecutor also known as the Commonwealth has the burden to prove the case.  The Commonwealth must prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  In a Massachusetts criminal trial, you don’t have a burden to do anything.  You are not guilty until you are proven innocent.  In fact, there is no such thing as the jury finding you innocent.  The jury in a MA criminal trial has an option to either find you guilty or not guilty.  You are innocent of any charges unless and until the Commonwealth proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Aside from the Commonwealth having the burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the Commonwealth cannot force you to testify.  You can sit there and refuse to say a word and make the Commonwealth prove its case against you.  You are under no obligation to help the Commonwealth in anyway.  You do have a right to testify in your case if you choose to do so.  Depending on the facts of your case, you may want to testify, but ultimately this should be a decision made by you and your attorney. 

If you don’t decide to testify, the jury cannot take your silence as any indication of guilt.  Most Massachusetts judges upon request will read jury instructions telling the jury to not hold your silence against you.  If you choose to not testify in your case, the Commonwealth is not allowed to use your silence at trial as an argument in its case.  Even with these safeguards there may be a risk that jurors hold biases towards a defendant that does not testify.

You absolutely have a constitutional right to testify in your Massachusetts criminal case.  However, it may not always be the best strategy to testify depending on the facts of the case.  In any criminal case, it is important that you work with your lawyer to create an aggressive defense.