Supreme Judicial Court (August 13, 2008)

Factually inconsistent verdicts rendered by a judge in a jury-waived trial do not require reversal.

Following a bench trial, the defendant, and two co-defendants, were found guilty of possessing heroin with intent to distribute, but were acquitted of trafficking cocaine. Based upon the underlying facts of this case, these verdicts were factually inconsistent. The defendants appealed, and the SJC granted applications for direct appellate review. The SJC affirmed the convictions.

It is well settled that in jury trials, factually inconsistent verdicts are upheld, recognizing that often juries render a compromise. However, the defendants argued that factually inconsistent findings rendered by a judge in a jury-waived trial present a different situation and, unlike inconsistent jury verdicts, may not be sustained. Recognizing this issue as one of first impression, the SJC disagreed with the defendants.

Recognizing different rules in different states, the SJC held that although it should be discouraged, factually inconsistent verdicts by judges are not reversible error. The reasons for adopting this rule vary, but the SJC agreed with other state courts that a judge's inconsistent findings are no more improper than inconsistent verdicts rendered by a jury, and often the reason for the inconsistency is judicial leniency. The SJC recognized that this practice is objectionable, and that leniency by judges should only be exercised through sentencing. Nevertheless, the SJC held that this is not reversible error. "Factually inconsistent findings should be avoided, but if a judge nonetheless renders findings that appear factually inconsistent, the judge should support the result with an explanation of the apparent inconsistency."