The Supreme Judicial Court holds oral arguments in appellate cases from Sept. to May, typically during the first week of each month. WGBH's Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Legal Analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daniel Medwed to discuss what's on the December docket. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Let's get right to it. What is the most significant case on the docket this month?
Daniel Medwed: Well, there are a couple cases that involve the interpretation of an important Massachusetts law. It's called Chapter 278a. And what it does, is it allows post-conviction scientific testing, often DNA, testing of biological evidence, where a prisoner is claiming to be innocent. And where that testing could shed light on the identification of the true perpetrator in the underlying crime. Now, most of these claims involve the classic "wrong guy" defense — the prisoners saying, 'It was someone else who did it, I've been wrongfully convicted. This testing will shed light on it.'
But some cases are so-called "no crime" cases, where the prisoner is saying, 'Hey, no crime ever occurred here at all.' Maybe the prosecution mis-characterized an accidental death as a homicide, or maybe the victim fabricated some allegations. And the question then in this particular case before the SJC is, does chapter 278a cover those "no crime" cases in addition to the classic "wrong guy" case?
Mathieu: Are these common, these "no crime" cases?
Well, here's what we know, and it's a little hard to discern. There's an organization called the National Registry of Exonerations out at the University of Michigan that documents and catalogs innocence cases across the country. And last year, 2017, they documented 139 exonerations — innocent folks let free. About half of them, 66, were "no crime" cases. And, get this, nine were murder exonerations, where someone was wrongfully convicted of a murder, and post-conviction investigation revealed that it was a natural or accidental death.
Mathieu: Wow, and again this is not to be confused with the "wrong guy, I didn't do it" kind of cases.
Medwed: That's right.
Mathieu: So how do you think the SJC should rule here, Daniel?
Medwed: Well, in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I'm on the board of a group called the New England Innocence Project that filed a friend of the court brief, an amicus brief here, urging the SJC to adopt a very expansive vision of 278a that would encompass "no crime cases." And perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree with that. I think it's consistent with the spirit of the law to provide access to anyone with a colorable innocence claim.
Mathieu: We're talking with WGBH News' Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed about this month's SJC docket. Any other oral arguments we should talk about?
Medwed: There was another one that caught my eye. It also involved statutory interpretation, which can be a bit dry, but I'll try to spruce it up a bit. This one related to personal injury law: Sterns vs. Metropolitan Life Insurance. Specifically may somebody who's developed an asbestos-related illness after a very long latency period — maybe 20 years after exposure — may they sue the construction company, despite the existence of what's called a statute of repose in Massachusetts? [The statute] says that you can't file one of these claims after six years from the improvement or construction of the property that gave rise to the exposure. So the idea behind one of these statutes is that at some point litigants should be able to relax, potential defendants should be able to relax. I have a vision of defendants in a lounge chair reposing without fear of civil litigation.
Mathieu: So what are the legal arguments here on both sides, because it sounds like the stakes are pretty high?
Medwed: The stakes are really high. For the defense, it's a classic plain meaning textualist argument. Look at the law, and six years means six years. And unless the legislature crafts an explicit exception for asbestos cases, the statute of repose should bar recovery. On the other hand, the plaintiffs are emphasizing, 'Hey, everyone knows about the long dormancy period for asbestos-related injuries, that it can take many years before they manifest themselves, and that it would be at odds with the spirit and the intent of our personal injury regime to not allow very good claims to get into court.'
Mathieu: And it's anyone's guess how this one turns..
Medwed: I think that's right. I'll be watching with bated breath.