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Judging the judges

September 5, 2011

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THE MASSACHUSETTS Supreme Judicial Court issued two decisions last week that allowed a pair of convicted murderers to receive new trials on technical grounds. While these decisions share little in common, they both risk a public backlash. After all, each case involves a man who has been convicted of murder by a unanimous jury and will receive a second trial for reasons that are unrelated to the evidence against him.

In one case, a 2004 murder in Lowell, the court ruled that the trial judge erred when he told jurors that in determining whether the defendant was insane, they could decide that if voluntary drug use caused the man’s condition, they could reject the insanity defense. The defendant didn’t contest that he committed the murder but merely his mental capacity at the time. He will remain incarcerated at Bridgewater State Hospital regardless of what happens in the retrial. In the other case, a highly publicized murder allegedly committed by a New York investment banker on Nantucket in 2004, the SJC tossed out the conviction because potential jurors on that small island hadn’t been adequately screened for bias due to publicity.

It’s a bitter pill for taxpayers to cover the cost of new trials, but it’s an investment in a fairer judicial system. The SJC is right to make sure judges are appropriately cognizant of the consequences of making mistakes or cutting procedural corners. The SJC’s decisions do not change the burden of proof or create more obstacles for prosecutors. They merely fix errors made by the trial judge in each case.

In well-publicized murder cases like these, too many state judiciaries, particularly those with elected judges, might be inclined to sweep such technical details under the rug; the SJC, whose justices serve freely until resigning or reaching their mandatory retirement age, simply applied the law, unafraid of any backlash. That’s as it should be.