The Limits of "Extraordinary Power": A Survey of First-Degree Murder Appeals Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 278, Section 33E

Stephanie Roberts Hartung, Suffolk University Law School


The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is afforded “extraordinary power” in reviewing first-degree murder convictions on appeal. Yet despite the plenary review established under section 33E--including the right to review the entire trial transcript for errors neither objected to at trial, nor raised on appeal--the survey undertaken in this article concludes that surprisingly few cases are reversed on appeal. This article presents the results of a survey of first-degree murder appeals in Massachusetts from 1998 – 2008. During that timeframe, just 7.17% of these convictions were reversed on appeal. Additionally, this article discusses the substantive issues giving rise to reversal, and the reversal rate for each issue. Criminal practitioners and scholars can benefit from a practical understanding of the aspects of homicide law which are most likely to support the reversal of a first-degree murder conviction.