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State v. James E.

Supreme Court of Connecticut

December 12, 2017

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
JAMES E. [*]

          Argued September 21, 2017

          Timothy H. Everett, assigned counsel, with whom were Kevin Semataska, certified legal intern, and, on the brief, Dennis Mautner, certified legal intern, for the appellant (defendant).

          Sarah Hanna, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, and John Waddock, former supervisory assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria and Espinosa, Js.

          OPINION

          ROGERS, C.J.

         The primary issue that we must resolve in this certified appeal is whether the state presented sufficient evidence from which the jury reasonably could have concluded that the defendant, James E., was guilty of risk of injury to a child in violation of General Statutes § 53-21 (a) (1), [1] when he retrieved and discharged a firearm during a chaotic altercation with another man in the vicinity of his three year old child. The defendant appealed from the judgment rendered in accordance with the jury's guilty verdict to the Appellate Court, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court because, inter alia, there was sufficient evidence to support his conviction of risk of injury to a child based on an uncharged mental health theory of liability.[2]See State v. James E., 154 Conn.App. 795, 798, 112 A.3d 791 (2015). We granted the defendant's petition for certification to appeal, [3] and, on appeal, the state presented an alternative ground for affirmance: ‘‘There was sufficient evidence to prove [that] the defendant [was] guilty of risk of injury to a [child] because the defendant will fully or unlawfully caused or permitted a three year old child to be placed in such a situation that the life or limb of that child was endangered.''[4] The defendant opposes this alternative ground, claiming that the state also lacked sufficient evidence to support his conviction under that theory. We agree with the state on the alternative ground presented and, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.[5]

         The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. The defendant and his three year old child lived in an apartment rented from Douglas E., his cousin. On the morning in question, the child was watching television in the living room when the defendant allowed Douglas E. and three others into the adjacent kitchen through the back door to continue remodeling work on the kitchen floor. An open doorway provided a clear sight line between the living room and the kitchen.

         Around noon, the defendant brought the child into the small kitchen and told Douglas E., seated at the kitchen table, that everyone had to leave so he could feed the child. Douglas E. objected, and the two argued. During the argument, the child was standing next to the defendant and near the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, either inside the kitchen or within ‘‘a couple of feet'' of it.

         After the argument ended, the defendant suddenly approached and opened a kitchen cabinet by the living room doorway. The defendant extracted a gun from the cabinet and, according to the testimony of one eyewitness, turned in the direction of the refrigerator as he moved to face Douglas E., who was further inside the kitchen. Because the refrigerator was located on one end of the living room doorway and the cabinet from which the gun was retrieved was located on the other end, the direction of the defendant's movement toward the refrigerator caused him to turn across the living room doorway, where the child was standing.

         Upon seeing the gun, even before it had ‘‘cleared the cabinet, '' Douglas E. ‘‘lunged'' at the defendant, and they ‘‘scuffle[d], '' ‘‘scrapping for [the gun].'' The defendant testified that Douglas E. ‘‘was yanking and pulling and pushing it back towards [him] trying to yank it out of [the defendant's] hand . . . .'' During the struggle, shots were fired, and Douglas E. ended up lying on the kitchen floor. Douglas E. testified that he did not recall hearing any shots during the quick, frantic altercation and realized he was shot only after he had exited the house.

         After the gunshots, the child was crying, ‘‘[s]tanding up in the living room'' and close to the edge of the kitchen floor tiles, while Douglas E. was on the kitchen floor with the defendant standing over him holding the gun to his head. As the defendant threatened to shoot Douglas E. in the head, the child ‘‘was yelling, daddy, don't shoot that gun; daddy, don't shoot that gun.'' The child then ‘‘[ran] to [the defendant], grabbed his leg, and he picked up the [child] . . . and walked to the front door, '' ending the encounter.

         The defendant was charged by way of a long form information with risk of injury to a child for endangering his child's ‘‘life or limb'' pursuant to § 53-21 (a) (1), along with other charges not at issue on appeal.[6] He was found guilty by a jury and subsequently sentenced. On appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the jury's guilty verdict on the ground that it was supported by sufficient evidence that the defendant had created ‘‘a risk of harm to the mental health of the child, '' a separate theory of liability under § 53-21 (a) (1). State v. James E., supra, 154 Conn.App. 812. This appeal followed.

         Both parties agree that the Appellate Court incorrectly affirmed the defendant's conviction on the basis of an uncharged theory of liability, namely, risk of harm to the mental health of the child. See footnote 2 of this opinion. We agree. See State v. Padua, 273 Conn. 138, 148-49, 869 A.2d 192 (2005) (state required to prove that defendant committed offense in manner described in information; under § 53-21 [a] [1], situation likely to injure child distinct from endangerment of child's life or limb). We therefore proceed to address the state's alternative ground for affirmance and the defendant's claim that the state failed to present sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he ‘‘will fully or unlawfully caused or permitted [his] child to be placed in such a situation that [her] life or limb . . . was endangered, '' pursuant to § 53-21 (a) (1). Specifically, the defendant alleges that the ‘‘evidence did not establish that the child was in the room when the shooting occurred, did not establish that the child was in the line of fire of one of the shots, and did not provide the jury with a basis upon which to conclude that one of the bullets fired could have ricocheted so as to endanger the child's life or limb.'' Accordingly, the defendant alleges there was insufficient evidence to establish that the child's life was endangered and that he acted with reckless disregard of this situation.

         When a criminal conviction is reviewed for the sufficiency of the evidence, we apply a well established two-part test. ‘‘First, we construe the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict. Second, we determine whether upon the facts so construed and the inferences reasonably drawn therefrom the [jury] reasonably could ...


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