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State v. Ames

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

March 14, 2017

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
MARY J. AMES

          Argued September 22, 2016

         (Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Blue, J.; O'Keefe, J.; Keegan, J.)

          Emily H. Wagner, assistant public defender, with whom were Lauren Weisfeld, chief of legal services, and Timothy H. Everett, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Mitchell S. Brody, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, former state's attorney, and Michael A. Pepper, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Beach, Prescott and Mullins, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          MULLINS, J.

         The defendant, Mary J. Ames, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a trial before a three judge court, of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court improperly (1) concluded that she failed to prove her affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance by a fair preponderance of the evidence, (2) concluded that the state had disproven her self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt, (3) concluded that the state had established that she possessed the specific intent to cause the victim's death beyond a reasonable doubt, and (4) interrupted and questioned counsel during the parties' closing arguments in violation of her right to the assistance of counsel. We affirm the judgment of the court.

         After a trial, the court found the following facts. ‘‘At approximately 12:56 a.m., on May 24, 2010, at Doran's Bar, located at 80 Old Broadway in North Haven, [the victim] Christopher Hall, a bartender employed by the bar, died of a stab wound to the heart. The fatal wound was inflicted by a knife with a blade approximately three and one-half inches in length. The knife was wielded by [the defendant].

         ‘‘The bar contains two rooms significant to this case, a poolroom and a barroom. Five people were in these rooms at the time of the stabbing, [the victim], [the defendant], [the defendant's] adult son, Michael Ames, Nicholas Moalli, a customer of the bar, and Joseph Iezzi, a friend of [the victim's] who had recently arrived to drive him home at the end of the shift. Of these five people, at least three, [the victim], [the defendant], and Iezzi, had been drinking heavily, and the remaining two, Moalli and Michael Ames, had been drinking at least moderately. It is safe to assume that alcohol played at least some role in the tragedy that happened. . . .

         ‘‘[The victim] was working the night shift at the bar and was the sole employee on the premises. At approximately 11:15 p.m. on May 23, 2010, the defendant and her son arrived at the bar. They had already been drinking heavily and began to drink more at the bar. Moalli arrived at approximately 11:30, and the four occupants of the bar proceeded . . . to drink beer and shots.

         ‘‘At approximately midnight, the four occupants moved from the barroom into the poolroom to play pool. Two teams were formed. [The defendant] and [the victim] formed one team, and Michael Ames and Moalli formed the other. The defendant believed that a wager was made. In her mind, the members of the losing team in two of three games would buy shots for each member of the winning team.

         ‘‘The team of Michael Ames and Moalli won the first two games. Iezzi arrived shortly before the end of the match. Iezzi and Moalli stayed in the poolroom. [The victim] returned to the barroom followed by [the defendant] and Michael Ames. Although [the defendant] had been a member of the losing team, she was determined to claim the proceeds of the bet for her son. She specifically was determined to pour a shot of tequila. [The victim] resisted.

         ‘‘Autopsy findings established that [the victim] was punched in the face and kicked in the groin. The totality of all the evidence persuades us that both [the defendant] and Michael Ames took part in this assault.

         ‘‘[The defendant's] statement to the police and her testimony to the court establish that during the struggle, she initially hit [the victim] in the chest with a sheathed knife that she carried in a pocketbook. She then removed the sheath and inflicted several wounds on [the victim]. Some of these were defensive wounds to [the victim's] hands and wrist. The fatal wound was a stab to the heart. All of these wounds were consistent with the knife . . . seized from the bar. The nature of these wounds convinces us that [the defendant] had the specific intent to kill [the victim] when she inflicted the fatal blow.''

         On the basis of the foregoing conduct, the state charged the defendant with (1) murder in violation of § 53a-54a, (2) felony murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54c, and (3) attempt to commit robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) (2) and 53a-134 (a) (2). The case was tried before a three judge court, which consisted of Blue, O'Keefe, and Keegan, Js. At trial, the defendant presented a claim of self-defense pursuant to General Statutes § 53a-19.[1] In the alternative, the defendant also presented the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance pursuant to § 53a-54a (a).[2] The court found the defendant guilty of murder, but not guilty of felony murder and attempt to commit robbery. The court rejected both the defendant's claim of self-defense and her defense of extreme emotional disturbance.

         After the judgment, the defendant filed motions wherein she requested that the court vacate its finding of guilty of murder and instead render judgment of guilty of manslaughter in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-55 (a) (2) or (3), or, in the alternative, render judgment of acquittal.[3] The court denied those motions and sentenced the defendant to a period of thirty-five years of incarceration followed by ten years of special parole. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be provided as necessary.

         I

         EXTREME EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCE

         The defendant's first claim is that the court erroneously concluded that she failed to prove her affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance by a fair preponderance of the evidence. In particular, she asserts that ‘‘the record in this case is devoid of ‘ample evidence' contradicting the claim.'' The state responds that the defendant failed to carry her burden of proving that she killed the victim under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance. We agree with the state.

         We first set forth the relevant law and our standard of review. Section 53a-54a (a) provides in relevant part: ‘‘[I]n any prosecution [for murder], its hall be an affirmative defense that the defendant committed the proscribed act or acts under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse, the reasonableness of which is to be determined from the viewpoint of a person in the defendant's situation under the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be.

         ‘‘[E]xtreme emotional disturbance is a mitigating circumstance which will reduce the crime of murder to manslaughter. . . . Pursuant to General Statutes § 53a-12 (b), [w]hen a defense declared to be an affirmative defense is raised at trial, the defendant shall have the burden of establishing such defense by a preponderance of the evidence. . . . A homicide influenced by an extreme emotional disturbance . . . is not one which is necessarily committed in the hot blood stage, but rather one that was brought about by a significant mental trauma that caused the defendant to brood for a long period of time and then react violently, seemingly without provocation.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Cannon, 165 Conn.App. 324, 333-34, 138 A.3d 1139, cert. denied, 321 Conn. 924, 138 A.3d 285 (2016).

         Our Supreme Court has observed that § 53a-54a ‘‘describes the two elements of that defense as: (1) the defendant committed the offense under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance; and (2) there was a reasonable explanation or excuse for the defendant's extreme emotional disturbance.'' State v. Forrest, 216 Conn. 139, 148, 578 A.2d 1066 (1990).

         The first element requires the defendant to make three subsidiary factual showings: ‘‘[T]he defendant must persuade the trier of fact that . . . (1) the emotional disturbance is not a mental disease or defect that rises to the level of insanity as defined by the penal code; (2) the defendant was exposed to an extremely unusual and overwhelming state, that is, not mere annoyance or unhappiness; and (3) the defendant had an extreme emotional reaction to it, as a result of which there was a loss of self-control, and reason was overborne by extreme intense feeling, such as passion, anger, distress, grief, excessive agitation or other similar emotions.'' (Emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Crespo, 246 Conn. 665, 677, 718 A.2d 925 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1125, 119 S.Ct. 911, 142 L.Ed.2d 909 (1999). ‘‘Consideration is given to whether the intensity of these feelings was such that his usual intellectual controls failed and the normal rational thinking for that individual no longer prevailed at the time of the act. . . . [T]he term extreme refers to the greatest degree of intensity away from the norm for that individual.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Ruben T., 104 Conn.App. 780, 786, 936 A.2d 270 (2007), cert. denied, 285 Conn. 917, 943 A.2d 476 (2008).

         ‘‘The determination of the presence or absence of extreme emotional disturbance is one of fact for the trier, and our review is the same whether the trier of fact is a judge, a panel of judges or a jury.'' State v. Blades, 225 Conn. 609, 628, 626 A.2d 273 (1993).

         Accordingly, ‘‘[t]his court will construe the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the trial court's [finding of guilt] and will affirm the conclusion of the trier of fact [regarding the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance] if it is reasonably supported by the evidence and the logical inferences drawn therefrom.'' State v. D'Antuono, 186 Conn. 414, 421, 441 A.2d 846 (1982).[4] In the present case, the court rejected the defendant's affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance, ruling: ‘‘After a careful consideration, we cannot conclude that the credible evidence supports this affirmative defense. Even if we were to hypothetically conclude that the defendant was exposed to extremely unusual and overwhelming stress, we cannot find that she had an extreme emotional reaction to that stress. While the evidence suggests that there was indeed stress in her personal life, we cannot find that her quarrel with [the victim], and her eventual killing of him, was a reaction to that stress. [The victim] had nothing to do with that personal stress. The killing was, rather, the result of a barroom brawl which the defendant herself had initiated.'' (Emphasis added.)

         After reviewing the record and construing the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the court's finding of guilt, we conclude that the court's rejection of the defendant's affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance was reasonably supported by the evidence and the logical inferences drawn therefrom.

         To establish the defense that she acted under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance, the defendant relied on her own testimony and the testimony of Catherine F. Lewis, an expert in forensic psychiatry. During her testimony, the defendant admitted to killing the victim, but she claimed that she had done so under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance. She contended that her extreme emotional disturbance had two sources: (1) the altercation with the victim, and (2) several unrelated stressful circumstances in her life.

         Regarding the altercation with the victim, the defendant testified to the following. The defendant believed that she and the victim had made a wager in which the losers of the pool match would buy drinks for the winners. When the match concluded, the defendant and the victim began to argue over whether the victim, having lost the match, would buy the defendant's son a drink. As the victim left the poolroom to return to the barroom, the defendant followed him and continued arguing with him. The victim repeatedly refused to buy the defendant's son a drink. The argument continued as the victim and the defendant exchanged profanities, and, according to the defendant, the victim eventually ‘‘put his hands on [the defendant's] throat.'' The defendant testified that, when the victim touched her, it caused her to feel ‘‘terrified, '' ‘‘trapped, '' and ‘‘like [she] was going to be hurt.'' She claimed that these feelings were largely due to prior unrelated incidents in which she allegedly was assaulted and raped. As a result of those incidents, the defendant claimed to have started carrying a knife in her pocketbook for self-protection. Because the victim's touching of her made her feel ‘‘scared, '' ‘‘upset, '' and ‘‘[like] a mess, '' she ‘‘freaked out, '' retrieved the knife from her pocketbook, and stabbed the victim in an effort to ‘‘get away.''

         Regarding the other unrelated stressors in the defendant's life that contributed to her extreme emotional disturbance, she asserted that those included the following: (1) caring for her ill mother and managing her mother's finances, (2) losing her job, (3) ending a relationship with her boyfriend, and (4) relapsing into alcohol abuse after years of sobriety.

         The defendant also presented the testimony of Lewis to support her extreme emotional disturbance defense. Lewis, an expert in forensic psychiatry, testified that after interviewing the defendant and reviewing the defendant's background and psychiatric history, she diagnosed the defendant with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Lewis opined that the defendant's stress disorder primarily was caused by two incidents in which the defendant claimed she previously had been assaulted and raped.[5] Furthermore, Lewis testified that a person suffering from this type of stress disorder is in a ‘‘perpetual state of hyperarousal'' and responds to a threat in a manner ‘‘way out of proportion to what it should be.'' As a result, Lewis opined, if the defendant ‘‘truly believes she is at risk [physically], she would be at risk to respond with extreme force or whatever force it took to stop that risk from happening to her.''

         Regarding the defendant's altercation with the victim, Lewis agreed with defense counsel that the defendant told her that the victim ‘‘had his hands physically touching her in some way.''As a result of this physical contact, the defendant told Lewis, she felt ‘‘trapped'' and that she stabbed ...


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