They cried out when a tiny blood-stained T-shirt was held aloft by a prosecution witness. They rushed out of the room when grisly pictures of their loved ones’s bodies were shown in court. One man was dragged out of the room by court officers after he screamed at a witness, calling him a snitch.
Emotions have been on display during the past two weeks in a courtroom of Suffolk Superior Court, as a prosecutor presented the case against two men charged with plotting a home invasion that led to the shooting deaths of four people, including a 2-year-old boy, in Mattapan in September 2010.
Weighing the gruesome testimony has been a jury charged with determining guilt or innocence with a cold focus on the truth.
But they also have witnessed the pain, grief, and anger of the victims’ families, emotions that veteran lawyers say can play a significant role in the verdict.
“I think it’s one of the key, almost unspoken parts of every trial,’’ said Michael Doolin, a Dorchester defense attorney and a former Suffolk prosecutor. “You can see the jurors when they come into the courtroom, when they leave the courtroom, they walk by the families. I think it’s hard for any person, whether they be a juror or any other person in the courtroom, not to feel some sympathy for the family of the victim or the family of the defendant.’’
In the first days of the trial, emotional outbursts from the gallery compelled the defense to call for a mistrial and Judge Christine McEvoy to ask those looking on to control their emotions or leave. The cramped courtroom, where relatives of victims and the two defendants were seated side by side, has not helped ease tensions.
Last week, testimony was interrupted again by loud yelling outside the courtroom, the result of an apparent confrontation between the mother of one of the defendants and a sister of one of the victims.
Holding back emotions is excruciating, family members say.
Patricia Washum-Bennett, whose 22-year-old son, Levaughn Washum-Garrison, was killed that morning on a Mattapan street, has been in court every day, watching stoically even as the most graphic evidence was presented.
Defendants Dwayne Moore and Edward Washington have pleaded not guilty to killing Eyanna Flonory; her 2-year-old son, Amanihotep Smith; her boyfriend, Simba Martin, 21; and Washum-Garrison, who was sleeping on Martin’s couch that night.
“You’re hearing these things, the tragedy of all of it. . . . Sometimes you want to lose it,’’ Washum-Bennett said Thursday during a brief break in testimony. “I hold my tears until I get home and climb into bed.’’
Washum-Bennett said she does not want the relatives’ presence to influence the verdict.
“I want a fair trial,’’ she said. “I want the jury to see the evidence in front of them, hear the evidence, and come up with their own conclusion.’’
It is a strong advantage for the prosecution if the jury witnesses the grief of the victims’ families, said Brad Bailey, a defense lawyer in Boston who was once a federal prosecutor.
‘I hold my tears until I get home and climb into bed.’Patricia Washum-Bennett whose
“Any prosecutor will tell you they just want the jury to focus on the evidence,’’ he said. “But you’re not going to find a prosecutor who is disappointed when the jury is looking directly at the family of the victim.’’
Still, that advantage can become a liability if the defense can prove the jury was swayed by emotions, not evidence.
“If it can be shown that there was undue influence, [prosecutors] may be trying the case again,’’ Bailey said.
A spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley declined to comment because the trial is ongoing. Lawyers for both defendants also declined to comment.
Since McEvoy addressed the gallery about checking their emotions, most family members have stayed calm.
Some have quietly left when a victim witness advocate has warned them that graphic testimony is about to come.
Cynthia Diane François, Flonory’s mother, has stepped out several times during testimony, something she does reluctantly. She said she wants to hear the testimony but knows her grief will be hard to hide.
“It’s really not fair,’’ François said. “You don’t want to do anything that’s going to affect the jury, but you also have your emotions and you want to listen to what happened to your child.’’
François said the court should link an audio feed to another room for family members who have trouble containing their feelings.
“The family can sit there, so the jurors don’t know what’s going on or who’s who,’’ she said.
Joan Kenney, spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court, said court officers considered using a separate room, but could not find the space.
“All of the other Suffolk County Courthouse rooms are currently being used for other trials and proceedings,’’ she said.
Even when any of the 24 courtrooms at the courthouse are free, there are rarely enough clerks or court officers to staff them all, according to court officials.
The challenge, Doolin said, is to maintain the delicate balance between ensuring the families’ right to be present and the fairness of the trial.
The court must be vigilant for loud whispers, distracting facial expressions, and even clothing relatives may wear to commemorate victims, Doolin said.
Before the trial began, McEvoy said such clothing would be banned from the gallery.
Washum-Bennett said her quiet presence alone is a reminder to anyone in the courtroom that she is there to represent her son.
“That’s why I come every day,’’ she said. “To let them know that he was loved, that he is missed.’’Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.