The Connecticut Supreme Court heard 42 criminal law cases during the 2012-2013 term and has released decisions in 27 of those cases. Here are the highlights.
Murder prosecutions can present the ultimate test in balancing constitutional rights with the quest for justice. The stakes are high, the facts are intense, and the trials are emotional. Appellate review in criminal cases provides a safeguard to ensure that if and when lines are crossed, the right to fair trial either remains unimpeded or a new one is awarded. Three decisions in murder cases from the past term demonstrate the proper application of the rule of law in defining the bounds of zealous advocacy and constitutional rights even in the most difficult of circumstances.
The first case is State v. Adams. 309 Conn. 459 (2013). Shelton Adams was convicted of murder and other offenses arising from a gang-related attack on the deceased and shooting two other victims in a public housing project. He and three coverts were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 75 to 100 years. Through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Adams claimed that the prosecutor in his case failed to correct false and misleading testimony of one of its key witnesses. Specifically, a state’s witness had entered a guilty plea with an agreed-upon sentence cap contingent on his testimony. However, on the stand, he flatly denied any offers of consideration and said that he was testifying out of a desire for justice.
The Supreme Court held that false testimony from the witness stating he was not promised any consideration on charges pending against him in exchange for his testimony violated Brady v. Maryland because the prosecutor failed to correct testimony that he knew or should have known was false. Accordingly, Adams was granted a new trial. (When the case returned to the trial court, the State’s Attorney extended the benefit of Adams’ decision to the other three men. Their charges were dismissed after it was represented that they would not be retried given the lapse of time and unavailability of witnesses, including the key witness who was now dead.)
In State v. Wilson, 308 Conn. 412 (2013), the defendant was convicted of a murder committed during a holiday party on Christmas evening, 2007. The gun in this case was not recovered. At trial, the defendant tried to show that he could not have been the shooter because he was standing too far from the victim at the time that the fatal bullet was fired. To support his theory, he presented an expert witness who testified regarding the approximate distance of the muzzle of the murder weapon from the victim’s chest at the time of the fatal shot based on the gunshot residue evidence. The prosecutor denigrated the defendant’s expert with “excessive and unnecessary use of sarcasm.”
The Supreme Court concluded that the prosecutor’s cross-examination of the defendant’s expert witness and comments made during closing argument did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial. However, the Court did issue a rebuke of the prosecutor’s conduct. It first noted that the prosecutor repeatedly offered his sarcastic congratulations to the defendant’s witness, belittled the nature of his work experience, engaged in name-calling, sarcastically compared the witness to a fourth-grader, and declared to the jury that the defense witness’ testimony “wasted an hour of our lives.” The Court made clear that, although the defendant’s murder conviction was not tainted by a deprivation of due process, it did not approve of the prosecutor’s conduct, stating that while “the prosecutor’s persistent, strident and improper denigration of [the defense witness' testimony] did not ultimately deprive the defendant of a fair trial, it far exceeded the ‘generous latitude in argument’… entrusted to those who represent the people of the state, and was beneath the dignity of the prosecutor’s high public office.”
State v. Custodio, 307 Conn. 548 (2012) presented an “ends justifies the means” mentality on the part of the trial prosecutor and the trial judge. The defendant was charged with murder in 1991. The court concluded that he was incompetent to stand trial and committed him to the custody of the state Department of Mental Health. Months later in 1992, the defendant was released from the hospital and lived at various residences for approximately 18 years.
In July 2010, the clerk’s office brought the defendant’s still-open murder file to the attention of the court. The trial court ordered a hearing to be held on July 26, 2010 and, since the defendant was never provided notice, he did not appear. At the hearing, the prosecutor explained that, to her “horror,” she had just learned that the defendant had been free for the past 18 years and suggested that the defendant should have contacted the state’s attorney’s office about his pending murder charge after his release from the hospital in 1992. The prosecutor requested that a failure to appear warrant issue. The trial court granted the state’s request, despite conceding that there was no basis for a failure to appear charge. The court reasoned that the charge was a way to get the defendant before the court and that the failure to appear charge would ultimately be dismissed.
The defendant was arrested that day for failing to appear for the hearing that he never knew about. At his arraignment, the trial court dismissed the failure to appear charge, set bond on the murder charge, and scheduled a competency hearing. At that hearing, the court concluded that the defendant remained incompetent and committed him back into the custody of the Department of Mental Health commissioner and ordered that he be subject to periodic competency evaluations based on a retroactive application of General Statutes Section 54-56d(m).
On appeal, the Appellate Court noted that the manner in which the state and the court brought the defendant back into the judicial system was misguided. However, because the initial murder prosecution remained open, the impropriety in pursing the failure to appear warrant was harmless. The Supreme Court affirmed and expressly concluded that the trial court’s order of periodic competency review was appropriate.
In State v. Webster, 308 Conn. 43 (2013), the Court concluded that the crime of “sale of narcotics within 1,500 feet of a school” does not require an actual, physical transfer of narcotics within 1,500 feet of a school, but rather is broad enough to include offers and attempts to sell narcotics with the 1,500 foot zone.
State v. Lavigne, 307 Conn. 592 (2012), holds that a joint holder of a bank account does not automatically become a joint owner of the funds deposited in the account, and the co-holder can be prosecuted for larceny for the wrongful withdrawal of those funds. It is a question for the jury as to whether the defendant had an ownership interest in the withdrawn funds.
In State v. Stephen J.R., 309 Conn. 586 (2013), the Court explained that proof of the specific dates on which sexual abuse was committed is not an essential element for the crime of sexual assault of a minor. The Court reasoned that to place such a burden on the state would render prosecutions of those who sexually abuse children virtually impossible. The decision leaves for another day the issue of whether generic or nonspecific testimony is sufficient when there is a potential statute of limitations defense available because it was not at issue in this case.
State v. Bennett, 307 Conn. 758 (2013), provides an excellent explanation on the differences among the three theories under which a person may be charged for a vicarious murder: felony murder, Pinkerton liability, and accessorial liability. The Court explained that, under the felony murder statute, a person who commits certain substantive crimes, such as a robbery, creates a foreseeable risk of death and, therefore, may be criminally liable for a death caused by another participant in the robbery. Under Pinkerton v. United States, a co-conspirator’s intent to kill may be imputed to a defendant who does not share that intent because a death caused by a criminal associate acting in furtherance of a conspiracy would be reasonably foreseeable.
However, to be guilty under a theory of accessory liability, the defendant must actually possess the intent that the murder was to be committed. The Court determined that the evidence in the case did not support a finding that the defendant had the specific intent to kill and, therefore, could not be convicted for aiding and abetting a murder based on a co-conspirator’s act of shooting the victim during a home invasion.
State v. Bryan, 307 Conn. 823 (2013), presents a useful summary on the justification defense of “defense of others.” The Court clarifies that the same principles governing self-defense apply to defense of others, and neither encompasses a “preemptive strike.” The defendant has only a burden of production and no burden of persuasion and may rely on evidence adduced by himself or by the state to meet this burden. The standard is a subjective-objective one, where the jury must view the situation from the perspective of the defendant, but the defendant’s belief must be objectively reasonable.
Here, the defendant stabbed his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in the parking lot of a school building while his girlfriend was in the building. The jury could have believed that the victim had been violent in the past and had brandished a gun and threatened to kill the defendant’s girlfriend just before walking toward the building. However, the defendant stabbed the victim when the victim had turned away from the school building (and thus away from the defendant’s girlfriend). The Court explained that once the victim turned away from the building, the defense of others justification was not available because it was not objectively reasonable to believe that the defendant’s girlfriend was in imminent danger.
In State v. Polanco, 308 Conn. 242 (2013), the Court overruled prior precedent providing that, when a defendant is convicted of greater and lesser included offenses, the convictions merge and the sentence for the lesser included offense is vacated. After Polanco, the rule is that the conviction for the lesser included offense is vacated; however, the conviction can be reinstated if the defendant’s conviction for the greater offense is reversed for reasons that do not affect the validity of the conviction for the lesser included offense.
By a 4-3 vote, the Court exercised its supervisory authority in State v. Medrano, 308 Conn. 604 (2013), to bar trial courts in the future from instructing jurors that, when a defendant testifies, they may consider the defendant’s interest in the outcome of the case in evaluating his credibility. However, the defendant lost his appeal that the credibility instruction in his case deprived him of a fair trial. The Court observed that the defendant was acquitted of a murder charge and convicted of manslaughter, suggesting that the jury found his testimony to be credible regardless of the trial court’s instruction.•