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State v. Wright

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 2, 2016


          Argued February 24, 2016

          Ronald G. Weller, senior assistant state’s attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, state’s attorney, and John Waddock, supervisory assistant state’s attorney, for the appellant (state).

          Lisa J. Steele, assigned counsel, for the appellee (defendant).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, McDonald, Espinosa, Robinson and Vertefeuille, Js.


          McDONALD, J.

         This certified appeal requires us to consider a defendant’s rights and obligations when he seeks to advance a theory of defense that the police investigation into the crime with which he was charged was inadequate. The state appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which reversed the judgment of conviction of the defendant, Billy Ray Wright, of murder and remanded the case for a new trial. The Appellate Court held that the trial court violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial by limiting his cross-examination of the investigating police officers as to whether the murder investigation conformed to general police practices and/or standard police investigative procedures. State v. Wright, 152 Conn.App. 260, 269, 96 A.3d 638 (2014). We conclude that, in the absence of a sufficient offer of proof regarding this line of questioning, the trial court’s rulings limiting cross-examination to the adequacy of the investigation at hand cannot be deemed improper. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. The victim, Ronald Bethea, was shot from behind as he stood a short distance from a small crowd of people outside a New Haven bar just before the bar’s closing at 2 a.m. on April 27, 2008. The crowd scattered upon hearing the gunshot. The victim staggered into the bar, collapsed, and lost consciousness. He later died from his wound.

         Police officers with the New Haven Police Department arrived at the scene minutes later. The first officers to arrive operated under the assumption that the shooting had occurred inside the bar, based on information to that effect relayed by a dispatcher, the victim’s location, and the statements of persons outside the bar. It was only after the department’s detectives subsequently arrived and reviewed surveillance video from several cameras positioned inside and outside the bar that it was ascertained that the shooting occurred outside the bar. The investigation that ensued led to the defendant being charged with the victim’s murder.

         The state’s evidence at the defendant’s trial consisted entirely of circumstantial evidence. The principal evidence was the surveillance video, which, in grainy images, showed the perpetrator’s movements from inside the bar to outside the bar prior to the murder. The surveillance video of activity outside of the bar showed the perpetrator approach two people, give one person a handshake and a sort of hug, walk away after that encounter, approach the victim from behind, and then shoot the victim with a gun hidden under his jacket. Although no witness identified the defendant as the perpetrator from that video, [1] an acquaintance of the defendant, Denard Lester, identified himself as the per- son on the video being given the handshake and he had made a prior statement under oath that the defendant had given him ‘‘dap’’ (described as a handshake and hug) outside the bar on the evening of the shooting.[2]Another witness corroborated that she was with Lester outside the bar when someone had given Lester ‘‘dap’’ shortly before the shooting occurred. The two owners of the bar identified the defendant and Lester as being present in the bar that evening.

         On the first day of trial, the state offered the testimony of four New Haven police officers who responded to or processed the crime scene. On cross-examination, defense counsel sought to question these witnesses regarding their investigation into the murder. The trial court sustained the state’s objections to several of defense counsel’s questions. These evidentiary rulings form the basis of the dispute in this appeal.

         The first witness, Officer David Parker, had attended to the victim and had not played any investigative role in the murder. On cross-examination, defense counsel established that Parker had never relayed to other officers that he had observed people running from the scene upon his arrival, or taken any steps to determine the perpetrator’s identity. After defense counsel established that Parker had responded on other occasions to shooting incidents prior to the murder of the victim, the state objected on the ground of relevance when defense counsel asked: ‘‘And when you arrived at a shooting, do-do you try to determine whether or not any witnesses were at the scene?’’ Defense counsel responded: ‘‘It’s not just what he did, Your Honor, that’s relevant. It’s also what he didn’t do that’s relevant.’’ The court sustained the objection.

         The second witness, Officer Terrence McNeil, testified that, although he was not instructed to do so, he had made repeated efforts to canvass for potential witnesses upon his arrival at the scene but ‘‘nobody wanted to get involved.’’ On cross-examination, defense counsel established that during those canvasses, McNeil had not: (1) asked anyone for identification even though he could have; (2) noted descriptions of people present at the scene; (3) canvassed homes across the street from the bar to ascertain whether anyone had seen anything; or (4) noted the license plate numbers of the vehicles that people leaving the scene had entered. Defense counsel established that McNeil previously had responded to many shootings, and then sought to ask: ‘‘And one of the things you want to determine is where the shooting occurred, correct?’’ The court sustained the state’s objection, ruling: ‘‘What’s relevant is his actions on the evening of April 27, 2008.’’ The court later sustained the state’s relevance objection when defense counsel attempted to ask: ‘‘Well, this is not a- a reaction that was new to you, people not wanting to get involved, correct?’’ The court reiterated: ‘‘Counsel it has to be related to this day.’’

         Defense counsel then asked for the jury to be excused. After the court did so, defense counsel argued: ‘‘This . . . is not the . . . first shooting [McNeil has] responded to. . . . His investigative skills are honed over thirteen years of experience. What he does relates to that experience. Okay. For me to say to him this is not the first time he’s responded to a shooting where people were not cooperative is just preliminary to me asking him well . . . having had people refuse to cooperate in the past have you taken steps to secure that cooperation other than merely asking them to cooperate. I mean it’s not as if-it’s just what he did at the scene here. When he is confronted with uncooperative witnesses, there are other things he can do in order to secure that cooperation. It’s not the first scene where he’s gone to where people did not . . . want to get involved.’’ The court responded that questions pertaining to what McNeil did or did not do in connection with this particular investigation were proper, but questions regarding other investigations were not relevant.

         Defense counsel requested to make a further offer of proof by questioning McNeil, which the court allowed. Defense counsel then asked McNeil only two questions: ‘‘When people tell you that they don’t want to cooperate, is there anything you can do to secure that cooperation?’’; and ‘‘When you are confronted with noncooperation of potential witnesses as you were in this case, can you take any other steps other than merely asking them to cooperate?’’ The state objected, but noted that it would have no objection to questions limited to the events of April 27, 2008. The court responded that it had understood defense counsel’s question to be related to that date. After confirming with defense counsel that he had nothing further, the court recalled the jury.

         When cross-examination resumed, defense counsel asked McNeil: ‘‘When you are faced with this noncooperation by the people you spoke to, was there anything you could have done in light of that noncooperation to secure their cooperation?’’ McNeil responded, ‘‘No.’’ Defense counsel then attempted to ask: ‘‘Well, wouldn’t some of the people not want to give you information in front of other people? . . . Is that one of the things you were cognizant of?’’ The court sustained the state’s objection on the ground that the questions called for speculation. Defense counsel then asked in rapid succession, with objections from the state and comments from the court interposed: ‘‘Well, if you had [the potential witnesses’] names that you didn’t secure and you approached them when they were home and not in front of a crowd of people, is that something that is done . . . on occasion? . . . You couldn’t have done that? . . . Some people don’t like to give information in front of other people, isn’t that correct, Officer?’’ The court also sustained objections to these questions.

         During a subsequent jury recess, defense counsel stated to the court: ‘‘In regard to . . . my cross-examination to what was done by the police officers in this case the state is going to get up and argue during closing argument, at least in everything humanly possible, as- and they were unable to have any witnesses, it’s not their fault. The fact of the matter is, Your Honor, that they didn’t do everything humanly possible. And what they didn’t do is as relevant in this case as what they did do because they do not have any eyewitness to this shooting, and what steps they . . . took or didn’t take to secure an eyewitness is important. Now, for me not to be able to ask an officer when you . . . canvass a crowd of people and say, does anybody have any information . . . we all know in the real world a lot of people don’t come forward to be labeled ...

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