Former Israeli army sniper convicted of shooting two men in a Forest Hills apartment, killing one, gets to spend the rest of his life in prison, court rules

The Supreme Judicial Court today rejected arguments that the 9/11 attacks would have made prospective jurors antisemitic and upheld Daniel Mason’s first-degree murder sentence for bursting into a Hyde Park Avenue apartment and shooting its two occupants and their dog, killing one of the men and the dog and injuring the other man so seriously he had to be put in a medical coma.

In an appeal, Mason’s lawyer argued his client deserves a new trial in large part because his Jewishness and his past as a sniper for the Israel Defense Forces meant either his lawyer or the judge in his trial – which started just three months after the 9/11 attacks – should have asked prospective jurors about their feelings on Jews and Israel, but failed to do so. He argued that the long-running Middle East conflict had made many Americans dislike Jews and Israelis and the 9/11 attack only made Americans hate them even more.

Yeah, no, the state’s highest court concluded. The judge and Mason’s trial lawyer did nothing wrong and Mason was fairly tried and convicted for the death of Michael Lenz and the injuries Gene Yazgur suffered early on March 2, 2000.

Here, the defendant has failed to meet his burden to show that there was a substantial risk that jurors would be influenced by his being a former member of the IDF, or being an observant Jew, necessitating individual voir dire [interviews] to assess juror impartiality. In fact, he failed to raise the issue at all during jury selection.

The court acknowledged that jurors can be questioned about their ability to be impartial in cases involving people who belong to different racial or ethnic groups than the would be jurors, but said it’s up to the defendant and his lawyer to raise those questions during jury selection:

Although we have yet to address whether Jewish people are members of a race, ethnicity, religion,or combination thereof, here the defendant has not asserted that he and either of the victims were of different races or ethnicities. At any rate, even where it is established that a defendant and a victim of a qualifying crime are of different races,”the requirement for individual voir dire arises upon the defendant’s request for such inquiry; it is not automatic.” See Commonwealth v. Martinez, 476 Mass. 186, 195 (2017), quoting Commonwealth v. DiRusso, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 235, 237 (2003).

The court absolved Mason’s attorney of any wrongdoing in not asking about antisemitism or Israel:

We cannot fault trial counsel for failing to identify, or to give credence to, an entirely speculative connection between the September 2001 attacks and Israel and to further associate that connection, or Middle East politics, with the defendant. Even if trial counsel had raised the issue, we are not convinced that he would have been able to demonstrate a substantial risk that the jury would be influenced by such extraneous issues, and denial of the request would have been well within the judge’s discretion.

As to why Mason – at the time a Boston University medical student who was arrested while on rounds at Boston Medical Center – wanted to shoot the men, prosecutors said it stemmed from a $118,000 court settlement against Mason that involved a parking-spot dispute with Yazgur in 1997.

On Sept. 1, 1997, Yazgur had parked a moving truck on a Cleveland Circle side street, Mason, in a car, grew impatient, the two began to argue and then fight, at least until Mason took out a knife and sliced part of Yazgur’s ear off. Mason was arrested, convicted, sentenced to probation and ordered to pay Yazgur $118,000 in damages.

The day before the shootings, Mason received legal notice it was time to start paying up, the SJC noted. The court then cited testimony from the murder trial:

The defendant’s then-roommate testified that, during the early morning hours of the day of the shooting, the defendant referenced the execution on the judgment he had received the day before, grabbed his crotch,and said, “Here’s their $118,000, they’ll never see a penny, I’ll kill them first.”

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