Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Rockville, Geographic Area 19
CORRECTED MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Susan Quinn Cobb, J.
The petitioner, Jennifer Helmedach, brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming that her trial counsel was ineffective in failing to inform her of a plea offer, and that had she been informed of the offer, she would have accepted it. She seeks an order of this court vacating her convictions and returning her case to the trial court for further proceedings. The court finds the issues for the petitioner, and, therefore, grants the petition.
The petitioner was convicted after a jury trial of felony murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54c, robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-134(a)(1) and conspiracy to commit robbery in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § § 53a-48 and 53a-136. The trial court sentenced the petitioner to thirty-five years' incarceration.
The petitioner appealed her convictions to the Appellate Court, which affirmed them. State v. Helmedach, 125 Conn.App. 125, 8 A.3d 514 (2010), aff'd, 306 Conn. 61, 48 A.3d 664 (2012).
The Supreme Court found that the jury could reasonably have found the following facts:
In 2002, the defendant, who was then eighteen years old, met David Bell, who was sixteen. They began an intimate relationship and, shortly thereafter, the defendant left her family's home in Middlefield and moved into the apartment of Bell's mother on Grove Street in Middletown. At about the same time, the defendant discovered that she was pregnant and mistakenly believed that Bell was the father. During this time, Bell also was involved in an intimate relationship with another woman, Xaimayra Sevilla-Cruz, who also was pregnant by another man. The defendant knew about this ongoing relationship. Both the defendant and Sevilla-Cruz also were aware of and involved in Bell's drug business.
Bell repeatedly abused the defendant and Sevilla-Cruz, both verbally and physically. He would occasionally punish the defendant for perceived wrongs by depriving her of food and cigarettes; he would occasionally hit her, pull her hair, grab her forcefully, shove her and threaten her with violence; he would call her offensive names; he would ignore her frustration and complaints about his ongoing relationship with Sevilla-Cruz; he would occasionally try to prevent her from seeing friends and family and become angry if she paid attention to other people; and his anger was unpredictable. The defendant referred to Bell by his nickname, " the God."
In May 2003, when Sevilla-Cruz was seven and one-half months pregnant, Bell subjected her to a beating during which he repeatedly hit her, kicked her and stomped on her. Sevilla-Cruz was hospitalized for treatment of her injuries. Bell was arrested, convicted of assault and incarcerated for one year. During his incarceration, Bell and the defendant wrote dozens of letters to each other. In a number of Bell's letters to the defendant, he threatened and criticized her and instructed her on how to behave. In many of the letters, however, the defendant and Bell expressed love and appreciation for each other and a hope that they would be able to live together as a family after Bell was released from prison.
In August of 2003, while Bell was still in prison, the defendant gave birth to a daughter, Ayanna, and, thereafter, moved into the home of her aunt, Virginia Farnsworth, in Middlefield. In June 2004, Bell was released from prison and the defendant resumed her relationship with him. The defendant and Ayanna left Farnsworth's house and, together with Bell, embarked on a nomadic existence, staying for short periods at locations in Middletown and Hartford. Bell initially treated the defendant relatively well, but, within weeks of his release from prison, he resumed his physical and emotional abuse of her and his drug dealing.
At some point in late August 2004, the defendant told Bell that Greg Richard, who was dating Bell's sister, had tried to rape her. Bell became upset, tracked Richard down in Hartford and assaulted him with a knife. At around the same time, Bell's brother stole the defendant's car, along with her purse.
On September 1, 2004, Sevilla-Cruz drove the defendant, Ayanna and Bell to the apartment of Sarah Tarini in Meriden. Tarini lived in the apartment with her ten-year-old daughter, Summer, and she had been allowing Michael Fontanella and Shanna Kropp to stay in one of the apartment's two bedrooms for several weeks. The defendant and Bell asked Tarini if they could spend the night there and told her that they would be going to New York the next day. Tarini agreed to let the defendant, Ayanna and Bell stay in the bedroom where Fontanella and Kropp usually stayed.
On September 2, 2004, Kropp told the defendant that she and Bell would have to leave Tarini's apartment. The defendant appeared to Kropp to be aggravated and annoyed at this request. At about 6 p.m., the defendant left the apartment with Ayanna, stating that she was going to call someone on a pay telephone to get a ride. The defendant called the victim, Faye Bennett, who was a good friend of the defendant and someone she had known since childhood, and asked her to come to the location of the pay telephone to pick her up. The victim, who was approximately six or seven months pregnant, arrived in her Chevrolet Blazer a short time later. The defendant repaid the victim $20 that she previously had borrowed from her and the victim gave the defendant a pair of sneakers as a birthday gift for Ayanna. At about 7 p.m., the victim called her boyfriend, told him that she and the defendant were going to Tarini's apartment, and asked if he wanted to join them. He declined.
At approximately 7.30 p.m. that same evening, Tarini, Summer, Fontanella and Kropp left the apartment and walked to a nearby store to purchase cell phone minutes and ice cream. At approximately 7:45 p.m., Scott Baustien, who lived in the first floor apartment directly below Tarini's apartment, saw the defendant and the victim walk by his window and heard them walk up to the second floor and enter Tarini's apartment. He then heard thumping noises. Baustien also noticed that the victim's Blazer, which was parked in the driveway, was blocking his car and a car belonging to Clarence Labbe, who lived above Tarini in the building's third floor apartment. Baustien telephoned Labbe to tell him about the Blazer. Labbe told Baustien that he also had heard banging noises coming from Tarini's apartment, which he assumed were caused by children playing.
Baustien then went outside to check the Blazer that was blocking the driveway and saw the defendant seated behind the steering wheel and Ayanna in the passenger seat. He told the defendant that she could not park there. The defendant, who appeared to Baustien to be extremely nervous and as " white as a ghost, " said, " I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, " and backed the Blazer quickly down the driveway toward the road, hitting the corner of the apartment building in the process. After Baustien returned to his apartment, he heard footsteps going down the front stairs of the apartment and a car horn beeping several times.
At approximately 8:15 p.m., Tarini, Summer, Fontanella and Kropp returned to the apartment. Tarini knocked on the door of the bedroom where the defendant and Bell had been staying. When she received no response, she opened the door and saw that the room was covered with blood and that there was a body in a garbage bag on the bed. Tarini immediately asked Fontanella to take Summer upstairs to Labbe's apartment and called 911. A short time later, Captain Timothy Topulos and Officer Justin Hancort of the Meriden police department arrived at the scene. They met Tarini and Fontanella, who were visibly shaken, outside the building. They then entered Tarini's apartment and observed the bloody crime scene and the victim's body on the bed. They also saw a baby bottle on the bedroom floor. Topulos summoned medical personnel, who determined that the victim was dead.
Initially, the police misidentified the victim as the defendant. It was not until the next day, during the victim's autopsy, that the victim was correctly identified as Bennett. The chief medical examiner determined that the cause of the victim's death was multiple stab wounds and strangulation.
The defendant and Bell were apprehended in the Bronx, New York, approximately eight days after the victim's murder. The defendant was charged with felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery in the third degree and robbery in the first degree. The state's theory was that the defendant had lured the victim to Tarini's apartment so that she and Bell, who feared that Bell would be arrested in connection with the assault on Richard, could steal the victim's car and money and escape to New York. The defendant claimed that the evidence did not support a finding that she had lured the victim to the apartment so that she and Bell could rob her, and that her participation in the robbery after Bell's assault on the victim and his threat to kill her if she did not get the victim's car and wait for him in front of the building was the result of duress.
In support of her duress claim, the defendant testified at trial that, after she and the victim returned to Tarini's apartment on the evening of September 2, 2004, they went into the bedroom to smoke marijuana. The defendant then heard banging and Bell entered the bedroom yelling, " [B]itch, give me my fucking daughter now . . ." Bell drew his hand back and the defendant thought that he was going to hit her. Instead, he stabbed the victim in the neck. The defendant testified that she was shocked and terrified. She grabbed Ayanna and ran to the front door, which she was unable to open immediately because it had a chain lock on it, and she was very upset. The defendant testified that her memory of the events surrounding the murder was not clear because the incident was " really bad" and she was shocked and confused, but that at some point Bell handed her the keys to the victim's Blazer and told her that if she did not get the car and drive it to the front of the building, he would kill her. The defendant went down to the Blazer, encountered Baustien and apologized for blocking his car, and tried to back the car out of the driveway. Because she had never driven the car before, and because she was in a state of shock, she had difficulty driving and hit the house. It took her three to four minutes to reach the street. As soon as she was able to put the car in drive, Bell opened the passenger door and jumped in, saying, " [d]rive, bitch . . ." The defendant testified that she did not recall beeping the horn of the Blazer. She also testified that, if she had had any idea that Bell was going to rob the victim, she would not have brought her back to the apartment.
The defendant and Bell drove the Blazer to New Jersey and ultimately went to the Bronx, where they were apprehended by Meriden police on September 8, 2004. The defendant testified that, during this odyssey, she had no cell phone and no money, and felt completely lost. Bell continually warned her " not to do or say anything stupid" and, although she occasionally was able to go to the store and to make telephone calls without him, she testified that she was afraid that he was watching her and would hurt her if she tried to get away.
The defendant also presented testimony by Evan Stark, an expert on domestic violence, in support of her duress claim. Defense counsel asked Stark a series of hypothetical questions based on the defendant's behavior after Bell had killed the victim. Stark testified that it would be consistent with " the dynamics in an abusive relationship" for an abused woman who has witnessed her abuser stab a friend to follow the abuser's orders when the orders are accompanied by a threat to kill the abused woman. Stark explained that, in an abused woman's mind, the abuser " is a giant. He has powers to see and hear things around corners, even when they are not together . . . [I]n her mind, he is all powerful . . ." Stark also explained that it would be consistent with the behavior of an abused woman in these circumstances to fail to take advantage of opportunities to report or to escape from the abuser because an abused woman would believe that " the only way that [she] could survive is to ...