Guilty verdict for 2013 stabbing overturned

Nov 26, 2019

The guilty verdict in a case stemming from a 2013 stabbing in Onset was overturned by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals due to what the court determined was the improper striking of jurors by the judge.

Dominic Alves was convicted in 2016 of  aggravated assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, two counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and possession of a class B controlled substance (cocaine).

Alves, who is African-American, was at a graduation party on June 9, 2013, when a fight broke out. 

Racial slurs were yelled at Alves and his group of friends, and, at some point, Alves allegedly punched a man in the back of the head. 

The man’s son approached Alves and they fought before Alves allegedly stabbed the son in the back two or three times.

At the trial, five of the seven witnesses either used racial slurs on the stand or admitted to at least potentially having used slurs in the past.

Before the trial began, the judge told the defense and prosecution that he would ask potential jurors several questions to determine whether they could impartially judge the case. 

One question he planned to ask was whether jurors could impartially weigh the credibility of a witness who used a racial slur.

However, at some point during the jury selection process, the judge re-phrased the question, asking instead if a witness’s use of a racial slur would affect the juror’s judgement of the witness’s credibility.

A total of eleven potential jurors were excluded due to their response to the changed question, including the only “identifiable people of color.”

“In a case like this it may be reasonable to conclude that a witness who has used what ‘is widely regarded as the most hateful and offensive’ racial slur against African-Americans [...] is less credible in his testimony against a black criminal defendant,” wrote Justice Peter J. Rubin. Rubin further explained that these jurors were improperly excluded because their answers did not indicate that they would be “unable to fairly evaluate the evidence presented and properly apply the law.”

“They were not asked, and did not say, that they could not be fair or impartial in assessing the witness’s testimony. They merely described accurately why the prior use of a racist term might have bearing on a witness’s credibility in certain circumstances. Yet they were excused for cause,” Rubin wrote.

Alves was tried by an all-white jury.

“Because only people of color were improperly excluded from the jury, the defendant was deprived of the right to be tried by a jury representing a fair cross section of the community in violation of the Massachusetts Constitution and Declaration of Rights,” Rubin wrote.

“The judgments are reversed, the verdicts are set aside, and the case is remanded to the trial court, where, should the Commonwealth choose to retry the defendant, he shall have a new trial before a properly constituted jury,” Rubin concluded.