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State v. Sanchez

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 5, 2016


          Argued March 14-2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Mullarkey, J.

          Susan M. Hankins, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Rocco A. Chiarenza, assistant state’s attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Gail P. Hardy, state’s attorney, and David L. Zagaja, senior assistant state’s attorney, for the appellee (state).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Sheldon and Mullins, Js.


          MULLINS, J.

         Following a jury trial, the defendant, Luis Sanchez, was convicted of one count of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a and two counts of assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-59 (a) (5). On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court erred in (1) admitting, as proof of intent, prior misconduct evidence regarding his involvement in a shooting that had occurred fifteen months before the charged crimes, in which he used the same gun that he used in the charged crimes, and (2) charging the jury that this misconduct evidence was admitted to prove the intent elements of the charged crimes.[1] We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. On the evening of October 6, 2010, the defendant, his half-brother Justin Bonilla, and his friends Gina Colon, Santos Gonzalez, Gabriel Rivera, and Akeem Wilis attended an ‘‘open mic’’ night at the Franklin Bar and Grill (bar) on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Brown Street in Hartford. Gonzalez drove the group to the bar in his car.

         At the bar’s entrance, an individual employed by the event’s organizer to provide security patted down male patrons to make sure that no one entered with a weapon. Prior to entering the bar, the defendant concealed a gun under the driver’s seat of Gonzalez’ car.

         In the early morning hours of October 7, 2010, someone jostled or spilled adrink on a female patron, precipitating a disturbance near the bar’s stage. Bobby Forbes and Joseph Schroeter were onstage with the performer when the disturbance began. Shortly after that disturbance, a fight broke out elsewhere in the bar. At the start of the fight, the defendant, Bonilla, and Wilis left the bar via the Brown Street exit. As the defendant left the bar, a security guard, Quron Zene, heard the defendant say ‘‘somebody get a ratchet.’’[2] After exiting the bar, the defendant retrieved his gun from Gonzalez’ car.

         After the physical fighting broke out, the bar’s owner began ushering patrons to the exits. Before being ejected from the bar, Forbes put an empty beer bottle in the pocket of his red and black jacket.[3] As patrons exited the bar, they congregated at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Brown Street.

         The defendant calmly walked from Gonzalez’ car to a position in front of a bank across the street from the bar. From there, he fired gunshots into the crowd. He fired an initial volley of shots into the crowd, then paused before firing a second volley of shots in the same direction. In all, he fired twelve shots into the assembled crowd in the two separate bursts. The defendant’s gunfire struck Jeanna Flores, who was standing in the crowd, in the back of the head, causing her death. The defendant’s gunfire also struck Forbes and Schroeter, causing them injuries.[4]

         After the shooting, the defendant and his companions fled the scene in Gonzalez’ car. As the group drove away, the defendant asked Wilis if he had seen ‘‘the way [the defendant] let them have it’’ and told Wilis that he ‘‘had to do it.’’ The following afternoon, the defendant and Colon fabricated an alibi according to which the defendant and Wilis left the bar with some women before the disturbance began.

         The defendant and Colon also asked Colon’s cousin, Aida Rojas, to corroborate their false alibi by telling the police, if they questioned her, that the defendant had spent the night at her house. A few weeks later, Rojas drove Colon and the defendant to the riverfront in Hartford, where the defendant threw the gun he had used in the shooting into the river.

         Sometime thereafter, the police questioned Rojas. Rojas initially gave police the false alibi that the defendant was not at the bar, but rather had spent the night at her house. The defendant also gave the police the false alibi, telling them that he had left the bar before any disturbance and had spent the night at Rojas’ house. Rojas later admitted to the police that the alibi was a lie.

         The police also questioned Colon. Colon gave the police two different and contradictory statements regarding the shooting outside the bar. When questioned initially, she did not mention that the defendant was present, in keeping with the fabricated alibi. Later, after having been charged with tampering with a witness and hindering prosecution for having solicited Rojas to lie, Colon divulged that on the day after the shooting the defendant told her that ‘‘someone pulled out a gun and he had to do what he had to do’’ because otherwise someone could have been shot, and ‘‘it could have been [Colon].’’

         The following procedural history is also relevant. On October 26, 2011, after the state had convened a grand jury to investigate the events of October 6-7, 2010, Michael Sullivan, an inspector in the cold case unit of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, informed the defendant that he was the target of the investigation. Sullivan told the defendant that he had a right to testify before the grand jury. The defendant denied knowledge of or involvement in the shooting. In response, Sullivan remarked that ‘‘there’s a lot of ways that people die in a shooting that is not necessarily murder, ’’ including when you shoot at someone else in order to protect yourself. The defendant maintained that he had nothing to do with a murder.

         Prior to the start of trial, the state filed notice of its intent to offer prior misconduct evidence. Specifically, the state sought to offer evidence that in 2009, an individual named Fred Colby[5] had identified the defendant as one of two individuals who had threatened him with automatic handguns, then fired at him as he fled the scene in his vehicle. The state represented that a 9mm shell casing recovered from the scene of the 2009 incident matched the casings recovered in the present case, thereby establishing that they had been fired from the same gun. The state sought admission of the evidence on two separate bases: (1) as relevant to the defendant’s intent to commit murder and assault; and (2) as evidence of the defendant’s identity as the shooter because it demonstrated that he possessed the instrumentality or means to commit these crimes.

         On September 12, 2013, the court heard argument from the parties as to whether it should admit evidence of the 2009 incident, at the conclusion of which it reserved decision on the matter. On October 10, 2013, the court heard additional argument and preliminarily ruled that the evidence was admissible.

         On October 21, 2013, the fifth day of the defendant’s trial, the court heard testimony outside the presence of the jury from Megan Pytlik, a lab technician who had matched the shell casing from the 2009 incident to the casings recovered in the present case, and from Pytlik’s supervisor, James Stephenson, who verified the results of Pytlik’s examination. Afterward, the court ruled that the evidence of the defendant’s involvement in the prior shooting was admissible.[6]

         The jury subsequently heard testimony regarding the 2009 incident from three witnesses: Colby; Luis Raimundi, an officer in the Hartford Police Department; and Pytlik. Colby testified that in June, 2009, in the area of Bond Street in Hartford, he had an exchange with two individuals, both of whom were carrying guns. Colby testified that he fled from the two individuals to his car, and, as he was driving away, they fired shots at him, hitting the car’s back windshield. Approximately one year later, when presented with a photographic array by the police, Colby identified the defendant as one of the shooters. When, at some point thereafter, Colby encountered the defendant in person, the defendant offered him ‘‘a couple grand if I just come plead ...

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