Criminal Law & Procedure: Due Process Requires Admitting Evaluations Filed by Defendant at a Commitment-Discharge Hearing, Says SJC

Hugo Santos, Petitioner, 461 Mass. 565, SJC-11007 (Feb. 22. 2012).

Summary: Petitioner was committed as a sexually dangerous person and filed a petition for examination and discharge from the Massachusetts Treatment Center under G.L.c. 123A, §9. The Supreme Judicial Court found that the written reports of expert witnesses retained by petitioner should have been admitted pursuant to §9. The court explained that to hold otherwise would raise due process concerns, and that, “[b]ecause of the difficulty of predicting future actions, it is particularly important to have a balanced view of the evidence from both sides in order to enhance the accuracy and fairness of the fact finder’s decision.  The importance of ensuring that fair procedures are employed is heightened by the liberty interests at stake for the petitioner.”

Discussion: G.L.c. 123A, §9 entitles someone who is committed as a sexually dangerous person to file an annual petition for examination and discharge from the Massachusetts Treatment Center. The issue was framed by the Court as follows:

“Section 9 provides that at any hearing on such a petition, the written reports prepared by the designated qualified examiners of their examinations of the petitioner are admissible in evidence, as are written annual reviews of the petitioner prepared by the community access board (CAB) under G.L.c. 123A, §6A, as well as the petitioner’s ‘psychiatric and psychological records.’ The question presented is whether §9 also renders admissible the written reports of expert witnesses retained by a §9 petitioner for purposes of the §9 proceeding.”

At trial, the judge ruled that §9 did not permit the admission of the written reports prepared by the two psychologists whom the petitioner had retained as expert witnesses and the jury found the petitioner to remain sexually dangerous, and he was not discharged.

The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed, and held that they would interpret the statute to avoid constitutional doubts, stating that “the objected-to exclusion of the written reports prepared by the petitioner’s experts in this case was prejudicial,” vacating the judgment of the Superior Court.

Implications: This interpretation of §9 is retroactive, meaning that attorneys should seek a new trial on behalf of any client who was prevented from admitting independent expert reports into evidence at a sexually dangerous person §9 trial.

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