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Jones v. State

Supreme Court of Connecticut

February 2, 2018

MELVIN JONES
v.
STATE OF CONNECTICUT

          Argued September 14, 2017

          Allison M. Near, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Michael O. Sheehan, assigned counsel, for the appellant (petitioner).

          Timothy J. Sugrue, assistant state's attorney, with whom were Stacey M. Miranda, senior assistant state's attorney, and, on the brief, Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria and Espinosa, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          D'AURIA, J.

         In October, 1990, the petitioner, Melvin Jones, was arrested and charged with the murder of Wayne Curtis, who had been found shot to death in New Haven just a few days before the petitioner's arrest. The case was tried to a jury, which found the petitioner guilty. Nearly twenty years after the crime occurred, in 2010, certain pieces of evidence from the petitioner's trial were tested for the presence of DNA pursuant to an agreement with the state. He later relied on that testing to petition for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. In his petition, he claimed that the new DNA testing demonstrated that he did not commit the murder. The trial court disagreed, concluding that the new DNA results, although valid, failed to establish that the new evidence would likely produce a different result in a new trial. The Appellate Court, reviewing the trial court's decision for an abuse of discretion, upheld that decision. Jones v. State, 165 Conn.App. 576, 604, 140 A.3d 238 (2016).

         In his certified appeal to this court, the petitioner contends that the Appellate Court should have engaged in a de novo review of whether the new evidence was likely to produce a different result. He argues that de novo review is appropriate because the credibility of the new evidence is undisputed, requiring only the application of the legal standards to the facts found by the trial court. He further asserts that, had the Appellate Court properly engaged in a de novo review, it would have decided the case in his favor.

         We agree with the petitioner that de novo review is appropriate in the specific circumstances of this case, namely, when the petition for a new trial is decided by a judge who did not preside over the original trial and no fact-finding was necessary because both parties agreed that the new evidence was fully credible. Applying a de novo standard of review, we nevertheless disagree that the petitioner is entitled to a new trial. We therefore affirm the Appellate Court's judgment.

         I

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The following facts from the petitioner's criminal trial and new trial proceedings are relevant to this appeal. On October 17, 1990, police officers were called to Howard Avenue in New Haven where they found Wayne Curtis shot to death in the driver's seat of his car, which was parked on the street. The victim had a bullet wound through his abdomen and several head wounds from blunt force trauma. Police investigators found bloodstains on the victim's clothing and on the interior of the car, including on the driver's side door. At the petitioner's criminal trial, a witness testified that he saw the petitioner wearing a camouflage jacket and standing outside the victim's car, arguing with the victim, shortly before he heard gunshots. Another witness who was a few blocks away from the crime scene testified that, shortly after hearing gunshots, she saw the petitioner, whom she recognized from the neighborhood, run to a dumpster, take off a camouflage jacket and throw it into the dumpster. She recovered the jacket and later gave it to the police. In the pocket of the jacket, officers found a receipt for mechanical work done on the victim's car two years earlier. The jacket was tested for blood and for gunshot residue, but the tests returned negative results for the presence of either. The police examined the victim's car but found no fingerprints or hair from the petitioner.

         The petitioner was first tried for the murder and found guilty by a jury in 1992 (first criminal trial). This court later reversed the judgment of conviction and ordered a retrial.[1] State v. Jones, 234 Conn. 324, 359, 662 A.2d 1199 (1995).

         The retrial was held in March, 1996 (second criminal trial). At his second criminal trial, the petitioner presented testimony from a new witness who claimed that he saw the shooting and that the petitioner was not the shooter. The jury nevertheless found the petitioner guilty of the victim's murder[2] and of carrying a pistol without a permit. The trial court sentenced the petitioner to a total effective sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release. The Appellate Court upheld the petitioner's conviction and sentence. State v. Jones, 50 Conn.App. 338, 369, 718 A.2d 470 (1998), cert. denied, 248 Conn. 915, 734 A.2d 568 (1999).

         In 2010, the petitioner sought, and the state agreed to, DNA testing of the jacket recovered from the dumpster and of the hairs found in the victim's car using techniques not available at the time of his second criminal trial. The test of the jacket identified a mixture of DNA material from multiple contributors. The victim and the petitioner were both excluded as contributors to the mixture. The petitioner also was excluded as the source of the hairs tested.

         On the basis of this new evidence, the petitioner filed a petition for new trial based on newly discovered evidence. He claimed that the new DNA evidence established that he had not worn the jacket linked to the victim, but that others had, demonstrating that he was not the perpetrator of the crime. In support of his petition, he presented the testimony of two forensic examiners from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, Division of Scientific Services (state forensic science laboratory), who performed the DNA analysis on the jacket. The petitioner's witnesses confirmed the results of the testing but also explained that a lack of any of the petitioner's DNA on the jacket did not establish that the petitioner had never worn or touched the jacket. The jacket was tested only for ‘‘wearer DNA'' by swabbing the inside cuffs and collar of the jacket. Additionally, the witnesses testified that any DNA previously deposited on the jacket could have degraded over time and that the mixture of the DNA that was detected from other individuals could have been deposited by anyone who had touched the areas of the jacket that were tested, including investigators, forensic personnel who originally examined the jacket for gunshot residue, attorneys, court personnel, and jurors. In addition to these two witnesses, the petitioner also presented a DNA test report indicating that certain hairs taken from the victim's vehicle did not come from the petitioner.

         The state did not present any witnesses or dispute the testimony of the petitioner's witnesses. The state, instead, argued that the petitioner's evidence failed to establish a probability of a different result in a retrial because the test results neither established that the petitioner had never touched the jacket nor established that one of the persons who contributed to the DNA mixture found on the jacket was the perpetrator of the crime.

         The trial court denied the petition. The court first determined that the new evidence met the first three elements for granting a new trial in that the evidence was (1) newly discovered, (2) material to the issues at trial, and (3) not cumulative. See Asherman v. State, 202 Conn. 429, 434, 521 A.2d 578 (1987). The court further concluded, however, that the petitioner had failed to establish that the new evidence would probably produce a different result in a new trial, the fourth and final element required for the granting of a new trial. See id. In its analysis, the court credited the conclusions presented by the petitioner's witnesses, finding that ‘‘the methods used to perform the DNA analyses were scientifically appropriate, that the methods were expertly executed, and that the outcomes obtained were accurate.'' The court observed that the absence of a DNA match to the petitioner or the victim ‘‘does not, of course, necessarily imply that neither had contact with the jacket or that the petitioner was never in the victim's car. The results simply demonstrate [that] their DNA was not detected on or in the items tested.'' The trial court determined that the new evidence would not impact the outcome of the case because the lack of any forensic link to the petitioner had already been argued at the second criminal trial, and the jury had found the petitioner guilty on the basis of eyewitness testimony despite the lack of any supporting physical evidence. The court lastly explained that the state would be able to argue, in a new trial, that the lack of the petitioner's DNA on the jacket could be the result of a number of factors, including that any DNA deposited could have substantially degraded or have been removed by earlier forensic testing and that the discovery of other DNA profiles on the jacket could be the result of handling by other persons in the decades after the crime occurred. The trial court later granted a request by the petitioner to appeal the trial court's decision pursuant to General Statutes § 54-95 (a).

         The Appellate Court upheld the denial of the petition. Jones v. State, supra, 165 Conn.App. 604. In his arguments to the Appellate Court, the petitioner asserted that the court should not defer to the trial court's conclusions on whether the new evidence would produce a different result but should review that aspect of the trial court's decision de novo and conclude that he is entitled to a new trial. Id., 598-600 n.13. The Appellate Court disagreed that de novo review was appropriate. Id., 599 n.13. It instead applied the abuse of discretion standard and concluded that the trial court had not abused its discretion in denying the petition for a new trial. Id., 600.

         We granted certification to appeal on the following question: ‘‘Did the Appellate Court properly determine that its review of the decision of the [trial] court is limited to abuse of discretion as distinguished from de novo review?'' Jones v. State, 322 Conn. 906, 140 A.3d 977 (2016).[3]

         II

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The petitioner first asserts that, contrary to the Appellate Court's conclusion and our prior case law, the trial court's determination that the newly discovered evidence is unlikely to produce a different result should be reviewed de novo. The petitioner's claim for de novo review is premised upon the fact that the parties do not dispute the credibility of the petitioner's new evidence, only its impact on the second criminal trial evidence, and the judge hearing the new trial petition did not preside over the second criminal trial. We agree that de novo review of the trial court's application of the legal standard is appropriate in these circumstances.

         Our cases establish that, to obtain a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence, the petitioner must establish that the newly proffered evidence (1) is actually newly discovered, (2) would be material in a new trial, (3) is not merely cumulative, and (4) would probably produce a different result in a new trial. Asherman v. State, supra, 202 Conn. 434. This standard is strict and is ‘‘meant to effectuate the underlying equitable principle that once a judgment is rendered it is to be considered final, and should not be disturbed by post-trial [proceedings] except for a compelling reason.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. The parties in the present case do not dispute that the petitioner's new DNA evidence meets the first three elements for granting a new trial. They disagree only on the fourth Asherman element, namely, whether it would produce a different result in a new trial.

         To meet the fourth element of Asherman, ‘‘[t]he [petitioner] must persuade the court that the new evidence he submits will probably, not merely possibly, result in a different verdict at a new trial . . . . It is not sufficient for him to bring in new evidence from which a jury could find him not guilty-it must be evidence which persuades the judge that a jury would find him not guilty.'' (Citation omitted; emphasis in original.) Lombardo v. State, 172 Conn. 385, 391, 374 A.2d 1065 (1977); see also Skakel v. State, 295 Conn. 447, 468, 991 A.2d 414 (2010). This analysis requires the trial court hearing the petition to weigh the impact the new evidence might have on the original trial evidence. See Asherman v. State, supra, 202 Conn. 434.

         The petitioner has not asked us to revisit the underlying standard requiring a probability of a different result but has asserted that this court should review the trial court's weighing process anew, without deference to the trial court's decision. This claim requires us to examine our standard of review for a trial court's decision on a petition for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.

         A

         Abuse of Discretion Standard of Review

         We have repeatedly observed that a trial court's decision granting or denying a petition for new trial, including on the ground of newly discovered evidence, is a matter of discretion for the trial court and is reviewable only for an abuse of discretion. Skakel v. State, supra, 295 Conn. 468; Shabazz v. State, 259 Conn. 811, 820, 792 A.2d 797 (2002); Asherman v. State, supra, 202 Conn. 434; Kubeck v. Foremost Foods Co., 190 Conn. 667, 669-70, 461 A.2d 1380 (1983). This includes deference to the trial court's process of weighing the impact of the new evidence on the original trial evidence. Skakel v. State, supra, 487 n.25 (‘‘[f]or more than one century, it has been settled law that an abuse of discretion standard applies not only to the trial court's ultimate decision whether to grant the petition for a new trial, but also to its subsidiary determinations in support of that decision''); Pradlik v. State, 131 Conn. 682, 686, 41 A.2d 906 (1945) (in weighing impact of new evidence, ‘‘the court compares the old testimony with the new and decides, in the exercise of a sound discretion . . . whether the newly discovered evidence is likely to change the result'' [internal quotation marks omitted]).

         Our deference to the trial court traces to some of our earliest cases. This court originally considered judgments on petitions for a new trial to be discretionary and not subject to review for error whatsoever, regardless of the grounds claimed to justify a new trial. See, e.g., Lewis v. Hawley, 1 Conn. 49, 50 (1814) (‘‘A petition for a new trial on the ground of . . . newly discovered evidence is an address to the sound discretion of the court. . . . These are to be tested by the discretion of the court, of which error is not predicable.''); see also Magill v. Lyman, 6 Conn. 59, 60 (1825) (‘‘[i]t has been so frequently, and so recently, decided by this [c]ourt, that the granting or refusing of a new trial, is entirely a matter of discretion, and is not the subject of error, that it cannot now be questioned''); Kimball v. Cady, 1 Kirby (Conn.) 41, 43 (1786) (‘‘[i]f the petition was for a new trial, it was [a] matter of discretion with the court to which it was preferred, to grant or negative, and error cannot be predicated upon such decision''). This court later determined, however, that decisions granting or denying a petition for a new trial could be reviewed for error. Husted v. Mead, 58 Conn. 55, 60, 66-67, 69, 19 A. 233 (1889) (reviewing and reversing trial court decision granting new trial because of newly discovered evidence). This court expressly articulated an abuse of discretion standard for appeals involving new trial petitions in Gannon v. State, 75 Conn. 576, 578-79, 54 A. 199 (1903). We have applied that standard ever since. See, e.g., Skakel v. State, supra, 295 Conn. 468, 487 n.25.

         Many of our decisions regarding new trial petitions cite the abuse of discretion standard without expounding on the reasons that support treating the trial court's decision as discretionary. See, e.g., id.; Shabazz v. State, supra, 259 Conn. 820; Asherman v. State, supra, 202 Conn. 434; Kubeck v. Foremost Foods Co., supra, 190 Conn. 669-70; Lombardo v. State, supra, 172 Conn. 390; Pradlik v. State, supra, 131 Conn. 686; Gannon v. State, supra, 75 Conn. 578-79; Magill v. Lyman, supra, 6 Conn. 60; Kimball v. Cady, supra, 1 Kirby (Conn.) 43.

         Nevertheless, a close review of our case law reveals that our deference to the trial court appears to arise historically and primarily from two considerations: (1) the trial judge's superior opportunity to assess the strength of the original trial evidence; and (2) the trial court's role as the arbiter of credibility.

         First, when the judge hearing the new trial petition also presided over the original trial, that judge is unquestionably better suited to assess the impact of the newly discovered evidence in light of the evidence originally presented at trial. The trial judge, having seen the original evidence presented as the jury did, will have a better understanding of how the new evidence might impact a new jury's assessment of the original trial evidence and whether the new evidence would likely change the result. Thus, we explained in Lewis v. Hawley, supra, 1 Conn. 50, that ‘‘[a] petition for a new trial on the ground of surprise and newly discovered evidence is an address to the sound discretion of the court. The court in fact [is] presumed to possess the whole of the testimony offered on the trial. They have a full view of the case as it appeared to them; with which they are to compare the surprise and newly discovered evidence stated . . . .'' Id.; see Gannon v. State, supra, 75 Conn. 579 (‘‘The court before which the first trial was had, upon the facts thus presented for its consideration, refused to grant a new trial. That action cannot be reviewed, unless it appears that the court plainly abused its discretion or misjudged the limits of its discretionary power.''); see also State v. McIntyre, 250 Conn. 526, 533, 737 A.2d 392 (1999) (‘‘Appellate review of a trial court's decision granting or denying a motion for a new trial must take into account the trial judge's superior opportunity to assess the proceedings over which he or she has personally presided. . . . Thus, [a] motion for a new trial is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court . . . .'' [Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.]).

         Second, the trial court hearing a petition for a new trial has the responsibility of assessing the credibility of the newly discovered evidence when determining the likelihood that the new evidence would produce a different result. See, e.g., Shabazz v. State, supra, 259 Conn. 822-28; Lombardo v. State, supra, 172 Conn. 390-91; Pradlik v. State, supra, 131 Conn. 686. This responsibility arises not only from the superior vantage point of the trial court, but also from its role as the final arbiter of questions of credibility and fact. Shabazz v. State, supra, 827-28; see also Skakel v. State, supra, 295 Conn. 487 n.25 (noting trial court's role as fact finder and deference shown by this court to that role); State v. Lawrence, 282 Conn. 141, 156-57, 920 A.2d 236 (2007) (same); Smith v. State, 141 Conn. 202, 214, 104 A.2d 761 (1954) (upholding trial court's conclusion that new witness was not credible).

         We have recognized that whether the new evidence would produce a different result at a new trial often will depend on the degree of credibility that the new evidence has. Shabazz v. State, supra, 259 Conn. 822-24. In Shabazz, we explained that whether new evidence would change the result of the trial often turns not just on whether a new jury could credit, for example, a new witness, but whether the jury would find the new witness' testimony sufficiently credible that it would be persuaded to reach a different result. Id., 823. In such cases, the trial court's credibility assessment and determination of the likelihood of a different result are tied together, essentially as one analysis, and the trial court must make a predictive judgment about whether a new jury would find the new witness so credible that it would be persuaded to reach a different result. Id., 827-28 (‘‘[i]f . . . the trial court determines that the evidence is sufficiently credible so that, if a second jury were to consider it together with all of the original trial evidence, it probably would yield a different result or otherwise avoid an injustice, the fourth element of the Asherman test would be satisfied''). When the newly discovered evidence is in the form of witness testimony, the trial court must typically fulfill its role to assess the credibility of that new evidence by receiving the witness' new testimony first hand, in court. Adams v. State, 259 Conn. 831, 842, 792 A.2d 809 (2002).

         Because the role of determining the credibility of the new evidence falls on the trial court, we have traditionally deferred to its ultimate conclusion on credibility and the likelihood of a different result. For instance, in Skakel, whether evidence from a new witness would change the result depended on the credibility that could be given to the new evidence. Skakel v. State, supra, 295 Conn. 486-87. Consistent with Shabazz, we deferred to the trial court's credibility assessment and determination of whether the new evidence would change the result, even though the new evidence was presented in the form of a video recording. Id., 470, 487 n.25. We therefore applied the long-standing abuse of discretion standard and concluded that the trial court's denial of the petition in that case was reasonable. Id., 452, 468.

         B

         De Novo Standard of Review Under the Circumstances in the Present Case

         In the present case, however, these traditional reasons for our deference to the trial court's discretion are not implicated, leading us to conclude that it is more appropriate to apply a de novo standard of review, despite our prior case law establishing an abuse of discretion standard.

         First, the trial judge deciding the petition did not preside at the petitioner's second criminal trial, and, therefore, did not enjoy any superior opportunity to assess the credibility and strength of the second criminal trial evidence. Any assessment of that evidence by the trial judge deciding the new trial petition must therefore be made from a review of the printed trial transcripts and exhibits. This ...


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