The state’s highest court has reversed the murder conviction of a man charged in connection with a home invasion robbery that left a man dead.
The state Supreme Court did not reverse a jury decision. Nor did it find that the prosecutor or defense lawyer did anything wrong over the course of the trial.
Instead, the court, with two members dissenting, simply looked at the evidence differently than the three-judge panel that found Calvin Bennett guilty of murder. Bennett didn’t wield a weapon, but was convicted for aiding and abetting another man in a home invasion that left one person dead.
Defense lawyers not involved in the case were surprised to see a three-judge trial panel overruled, especially since the reversal wasn’t based on any procedural error.
"To me, that was the most shocking part," said John T. Walkley, a New Haven attorney who specializes in defending murder cases. "I can’t think of any other time in my knowledge… I’m not aware it has ever happened."
The victim, 20-year-old James Caffrey, was selling marijuana from his apartment in Waterbury where he lived with his pregnant fiancée.
One night, around 1 a.m., Bennett and Tamarius Maner, both of Bridgeport, went to Caffrey’s door to rob him. They knew he kept a small amount of marijuana and cash in the apartment bedroom; Maner had been hanging out at the apartment earlier that evening.
Caffrey opened the door and a brief conversation took place. Maner then shot Caffrey in the face. Caffrey fell to the ground in the hallway in a pool of blood and died.
The two visitors then walked into the apartment, held the fiancée up at gunpoint and took the drugs and money. Caffrey’s mother came out, began screaming and wanted to call 911. Maner then fired a shot at the mother and missed. The men then fled.
Maner was later tracked down by police and charged and convicted of murder. Though he never fired a shot, Bennett also was charged and convicted of murder.
Bennett waived his right to a jury trial, instead opting for a three-judge panel consisting of Superior Court Judges William T. Cremins, Juliett L. Crawford and Carl J. Schuman. The panel convicted Bennett for his role in the October 2009 killing and sentenced him to 60 years in prison. But the decision wasn’t unanimous, as Judge Schuman dissented.
Bennett appealed the conviction on grounds that included that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for aiding and abetting murder.
Specifically, the defendant claims that the prosecution presented no evidence to establish that he intended to kill Caffrey, as required under the state’s accessory theory of liability. Bennett contends that the evidence established only that he intended to steal money from Caffrey, and that he accompanied Maner on the night of the homicide.
The state’s highest court, in an opinion officially released last week, agreed with Bennett and reversed the murder conviction.
The majority opinion, penned by Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., noted that this case did not follow the typical pattern of other aiding and abetting murder cases. They agreed that the defendant did not go to the apartment intending to kill the victim.
For instance, the justices noted that in many aiding and abetting cases, the murder defendant injures the victim, even if they do not inflict the fatal blow. Other acts that have resulted in such aiding and abetting convictions include distracting the murder victim or acting as a lookout. "No such evidence was proffered in the present case," wrote Harper.
Harper noted that Bennett acted indifferent to human life by proceeding with the robbery after the shooting and not doing anything to help the victim. "Indifference, however, is not intent," said Harper.
Harper noted that there was no evidence that Bennett encouraged Maner to shoot the victim or that Bennett ever threatened the victim.
The majority opinion reversed the conviction with orders for the trial court to enter a judgment of not guilty for the murder charge. Bennett remains convicted of burglary and home invasion charges.
Justice Flemming L. Norcott, with Justice Peter T. Zarella joining, dissented, saying that the three-judge panel had sufficient reason to convict Bennett on murder charges.
"I conclude that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence of the defendant’s intent, drawn from his conduct before and after the victim’s death, to sustain the trial court’s conclusion that he intended the victim’s death to result during the home invasion and was not merely acting as a passive observer or tag-along," wrote Norcott.
Justice Norcott notes that the fact Bennett brought a loaded handgun with him to the robbery could be deemed probative of his intent in the view of the three-judge panel. Further, Justice Norcott notes that Bennett was not surprised by the shooting and proceeded with the robbery as planned.
"It is well settled that a lack of concern with the welfare of a victim and a corresponding failure to obtain medical assistance, can be considered circumstantial evidence of a defendant’s intent to kill," wrote Norcott.
Michele Lukban, senior assistant state’s attorney, said the state was in "the process of reviewing the decision and exploring our options."•