Massachusetts Jury Deadlocked On Charges of Threatening a Judge

I’m sure you read and hear of cases every day where judges hand down sentences to criminal defendants. Less frequently reported, are cases of a judge being threatened with some type of harm as the result of the sentences they mete out.

Just such a case occurred recently in Suffolk Superior Court, where a man who was previously sentenced by a West Roxbury District Court judge for an OUI offense, allegedly threatened the judge after she handed down her most recent sentence against him. Peter Hrycenko was charge with intimidation of a Massachusetts judge after he allegedly sent a threatening letter to the judge’s home on Dec. 23, 2007. Three days prior to that date, judge Coffey had sentenced Hrycenko to serve one year of a two-year jail sentence for operating after the suspension of his license for a prior OUI conviction.

At issue in this trial, was not so much the letter itself, but the intent behind the letter. The letter, which was introduced into evidence during Hrycenko’s trial that began August 11, recited the following language: “”I am as shocked writing this letter, as you may be receiving it. I’ve known of your residence for years and as upset as I have been towards you, I have never retaliated against you or your property because it is not who I am. Please take the time to read this as I want you to fully understand the toll your harsh sentences have taken on me and my family.” The letter goes on to complain about the sentence Coffey imposed on him in 2007 as well as a previous occasion in 2000. Hrycenko also describes a knifepoint attack “behind your court” and mentions an earlier conviction for rape. According to court documents, Hrycenko was found guilty of aggravated rape and sexual assault of a hitchhiker in 1988.

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Joseph M. Ditkoff, along with Assistant District Attorney Stacie M. Moeser, argued that “[T]he defendant’s description of rapes and knifepoint attacks combined with assurance that he knew where [Coffey] lived and that he was upset with her was adequate evidence from which [a] judge could infer that the defendant was threatening the judge with harm if she did not accede to his demands,” The relevant law, known in legal circles as the “intimidation statute”, M. G.L. Ch. 268, §13B(1)(c)(iii), makes it a crime for anyone to “directly or indirectly, willfully … intimidate or harass another person who is … a judge … with the intent to interfere thereby with a … criminal proceeding.” This crime is a felony, and provides for a penalty of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Intimidation, whether directed at a witness or a judge, is similar to assault, (and assault is distinct from battery.) Hrycenko’s defense attorney, Daniel Beck, argued his client had no intent to intimidate: “I told the jury that his big mistake was sending the letter to her home, but that it was not done to intimidate her,” he said. “It was a pathetic plea for mercy.”

A few minutes into the jury’s deliberations, the jury asked Superior Court judge Linda E. Giles to clarify what the term “willful” means, indicating that the issue for the jury was whether or not Hrycenko intended to intimidate judge Coffey. This point illustrates the importance of the issue of “intent”, or, in latin, mens rea, in a specific-intent crime like this: While the effect of Hrycenko’s letter may have been to intimidate this judge, unless the jury could agree that Hrycenko had this specific intent to intimidate, (versus just complaining or airing his feelings,) then a guilty finding is going to be quite difficult.

And difficult it apparently was, because after one day of deliberations, on August 14, Judge Linda E. Giles declared a mistrial after jurors advised her they were helplessly deadlocked. As a Boston criminal defense attorney, I’ve seen juries deadlock on issues like this several times. Undeterred, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said the office will retry Hrycenko. A new trial date has yet to be announced.