BOSTON -- It was a horrific murder: a Massachusetts man shot his estranged wife seven times, and then bludgeoned her with the butt of a rifle. The couple’s 8-year-old son found his mother’s beaten and bloodied body the next day.
The boy later won a groundbreaking legal battle to “divorce” his father.
Now, nearly two decades after the murder, the case is headed to the state’s top court. Daniel Holland is appealing a judge’s refusal to grant him a new trial, arguing that his lawyers failed to present evidence of his mental health issues. The state Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday.
On Oct. 14, 1998, eight-year-old Patrick Holland walked into his mother’s bedroom in their house in Quincy and found her body. He ran outside in his underwear and told a neighbor that someone had shot his mom.
“Who is going to take care of me now?” he asked.
Inside the house, police found pieces of a shattered .22-caliber rifle on Elizabeth Holland’s body.
During Daniel Holland’s trial, prosecutors said he had purchased the rifle and ammunition about a month before his wife’s death. The couple had been separated for eight months.
The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds to her chest and abdomen, with blunt head trauma listed as a contributing factor.
Holland was convicted of first-degree murder and armed home invasion in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.
A judge denied his motion for a new trial, saying he viewed the request as a continuation of Holland’s attempts “to abuse and manipulate the court system, the judges involved in this case, his own private and retained attorneys, the prosecutors and even his own mother and father” in an attempt to avoid responsibility for his wife’s murder.
But Holland’s new lawyer, Kevin Nixon, argues that his previous lawyers should have presented evidence to the jury about Holland’s mental illness.
“The evidence pointing to a mitigating defense of mental impairment was never investigated or developed by trial counsel,” Nixon wrote in a legal brief filed with the Supreme Judicial Court. “The defense (that) was presented was limited and inadequate and, given the evidence that was available to the defense, inexplicable.”
Nixon declined to comment on the case, but wrote that Holland exhibited signs of mental illness throughout his life.
Prosecutors, however, say Holland’s trial lawyers made a strategic decision to focus their defense on impairment caused by Holland’s chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol because there was “scant” evidence suggesting he was mentally ill.
“There is no evidence in the record that the defendant had any mental impairment; nor is there evidence that any qualified expert determined that he might not be criminally responsible,” Assistant District Attorney Tracey Cusick wrote in a brief.
During his trial, Holland testified that on the day of his wife’s killing, he drank heavily and smoked marijuana and crack cocaine. He said he had no memory of being at her house that day. His trial lawyer argued that he was not criminally responsible for his actions because of his drug use.
Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed said defendants who ask for a new trial based on the argument that their lawyers were ineffective often face an uphill battle.
“It’s hard to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, especially when the trial lawyers did engage in some investigation and may have made a strategic decision to pursue one line of defense over another,” Medwed said.
Six years after his mothers’ death, 14-year-old Patrick Holland asked a judge to terminate his father’s parental rights. Daniel Holland later agreed to give up those rights.
Patrick Holland was adopted by friends of his mother. He could not be reached for comment on his father’s appeal.