Circuit Upholds Admission of Grand Jury Testimony as Prior Inconsistent Statement

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 08, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The First Circuit Court of Appeals last week affirmed a district court’s denial of habeas corpus in a murder case that’s been bouncing like a pinball through the Massachusetts courts since 1985.

Penny Anderson was murdered at her Springfield, Mass. apartment in 1984. In 1985, a Superior Court jury convicted the petitioner, Edward Wright, of the crime.

After exhausting his state challenges, Wright filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. The district court eventually granted Wright an evidentiary hearing to introduce new evidence, but ultimately denied habeas relief.

Wright appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to object to the trial admission of the prior grand jury testimony of a key witness, Arthur Turner, and because he failed to request a misidentification instruction.

Turner, the son of Wright's on-and-off-again girlfriend, Thelma, testified that he received a phone call on the day of the murder from someone who identified himself as "Ed." The caller said he had killed someone, provided Anderson's address, described the victim and murder weapon, and added that Turner should watch the news or go get the newspaper and then he would know who the victim was.

After learning of Anderson's murder through media reports, Turner provided the information to the police in a signed statement, which was read into the record during grand jury proceedings. Turner reaffirmed the truth of the statement for the grand jury, but changed his story six months later when Thelma and Wright reconciled to say that he was not sure that Wright was the "Ed" who called him the day of the murder. At trial, the judge admitted Turner's grand jury testimony under Commonwealth v. Daye as a prior inconsistent statement.

On appeal, Wright argued that his trial attorney erred by failing to argue the inadmissibility of Turner's testimony because it fell short on the third Daye factor (it was a mere confirmation of an allegation made by the prosecutor who questioned Turner in front of the grand jury rather than Turner's own statement) and the fourth Daye factor (the commonwealth failed to introduce sufficient corroborative evidence).

The First Circuit Court of Appeals found that trial counsel's failure to argue against the admission of Turner's grand jury testimony based specifically on the third Daye factor was thus not deficient performance. The court further noted that the commonwealth had provided sufficient corroborating evidence, (phone records, blood traces, similar statements between "Ed" and Wright about the victim), at trial. Finally, the court found that the misidentification instruction issue need not be considered because Wright failed to show a reasonable probability that it affected the outcome of his trial.

What do you think? Was the attorney's failure to request the misidentification instruction a critical error? Do you think the First Circuit should have reversed the district court based on the admission of Turner's prior inconsistent statement from his grand jury testimony?

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