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State v. Corver

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 12, 2018

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
JOHN CORVER

          Argued January 30, 2018

         Procedural History

         Two part substitute information charging the defendant, in the first part, with four counts of the crime of attempt to commit murder, two counts of the crime of assault in the first degree and the crime of kidnapping in the first degree, and, in the second part, with being a persistent dangerous felony offender, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland, where the, court, Oliver, J., denied the defendant's motion to discharge counsel; thereafter, the first part of the information was tried to the court, Graham, J.; finding of guilty of three counts of attempt to commit murder, two counts of assault in the first degree and kidnapping in the first degree; subsequently, the defendant was presented to the court, Oliver, J., on a conditional plea of nolo contendere to the charge of being a persistent dangerous felony offender; thereafter, the court, Graham, J., rendered judgment of guilty in accordance with the finding and plea, from which the defendant appealed. Affirmed.

          Joseph G. Bruckmann, public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

          Harry Weller, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Matthew C. Gedansky, state's attorney, and Merav Knafo, certified legal intern, for the appellee (state).

          Prescott, Elgo and Bear, Js.

          OPINION

          ELGO, J.

         The defendant, John Corver, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a court trial, of three counts of attempt to commit murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) (2) and 53a-54a, two counts of assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-59 (a) (1), and one count of kidnapping in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-92 (a) (2) (A). On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in denying a request to discharge his legal counsel and (2) his conviction must be reversed because he did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive his right to a jury trial. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         On the basis of the evidence adduced at trial, the court reasonably could have found the following facts.[1]In April, 2014, the defendant's wife, K, [2] traveled to California to visit her mother and attend a dog show. While in California, K informed the defendant that she wanted to end their marriage. When the defendant picked her up at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks on the evening of April 23, 2014, he was very aggravated. Once inside her vehicle, the defendant begged her not to leave him. When K indicated that their marriage was over, the defendant, who was operating the vehicle, grew even more agitated. Concerned that the ‘‘situation was getting out of control, '' K attempted to call a friend. In response, the defendant grabbed her cell phone and tossed it out the window. The defendant then retrieved a knife from the driver's side door and began stabbing K on the left side of her body. While doing so, the defendant repeatedly told K that he loved her and did not want to hurt her, but that he was going to kill her for ruining his life.

         K, who was bleeding from her injuries, asked the defendant to take her to a hospital or to let her out of the vehicle. The defendant refused to do so. Instead, he took her to a secluded area of the Nathan Hale Homestead (homestead) in Coventry, where he parked and exited the vehicle. He then opened K's passenger side door and again stabbed her multiple times. As he did so, the defendant continuously told K that her loved her, but was going to kill her.

         The defendant then returned to the driver's side of the vehicle and left the homestead. As he drove around Coventry, K ‘‘was not doing well'' and felt ‘‘[v]ery weak.'' The defendant ultimately returned to the same secluded area of the homestead and parked the vehicle. The defendant then stuffed a rag inside the gas tank of the vehicle and attempted to set it on fire. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, the defendant stabbed himself in the stomach and then tried to strangle himself, but to no avail. He then called a friend, Mike Theirer, and told him that he had stabbed K and that ‘‘[t]his is the end.''[3] Theirer then contacted the police and informed them that the defendant had just told him that he had stabbed his wife. During that phone call, a recording of which was admitted into evidence and played at trial, Theirer stated that he heard K‘‘screaming in the background'' during his conversation with the defendant.[4]

         The defendant once again drove away from the homestead. He handed the knife to K and asked her to stab him, telling her that they ‘‘both were going to die . . . .'' K took the knife and dropped it out of the vehicle. At that point, the defendant accelerated and said, ‘‘Here we go, baby. We're both going to die now . . . .'' The defendant then drove the vehicle into a large tree.

         When a passerby spotted the vehicle against the tree, she stopped her vehicle and immediately called 911. Melinda Hegener, an emergency medical technician and the assistant chief of the Andover Volunteer Fire Department, first responded to the scene. Hegener testified at trial that K was ‘‘very pale'' and ‘‘covered in blood . . . .'' Hegener at that time believed that if K ‘‘didn't get medical attention soon . . . she would probably [pass] out and die.'' K was transported by helicopter to Hartford Hospital, where she remained for approximately two weeks while undergoing multiple surgeries.

         The defendant thereafter was arrested and charged, by substitute information, with four counts of attempt to commit murder, two counts of assault in the first degree, and one count of kidnapping in the first degree. A court trial was held in November, 2015, at the conclusion of which the court, Graham, J., acquitted the defendant on one count of attempt to commit murder and found him guilty on all other counts.[5] The court sentenced the defendant to a total effective term of thirty-eight years incarceration, and this appeal followed.

         I

         The defendant first claims that the court abused its discretion in denying a request to discharge his legal counsel, Attorney Ryan E. Bausch, due to a breakdown in communication that was made on the eve of jury selection. We disagree.

         The following additional facts are relevant to the defendant's claim. Although a public defender initially was appointed to represent the defendant due to his failure to post bond, Bausch filed an appearance as his privately retained attorney on July 18, 2014. The case was continued multiple times while the defendant reviewed discovery and discussed a possible plea deal with the state. On May 8, 2015, the state advised the court, Oliver, J., that although it had been discussing a plea offer with the defendant for ‘‘a number of months, '' it did not believe that those discussions were ‘‘going to be fruitful.'' Accordingly, the state suggested that the case should be moved to the jury trial list. In response, Bausch requested a judicial pretrial conference and indicated that the defendant ‘‘wants to speak with me before [it] actually occurs.'' The court granted that request, and a pretrial was held on June 5, 2015.

         When the parties appeared before the court, Bright, J., on July 31, 2015, Bausch began his remarks by stating that he had ‘‘talked to [the defendant] numerous times since the [pretrial conference] regarding the [plea] offer . . . .'' After acknowledging that ‘‘today is the acceptor-reject date, '' Bausch requested a further continuance to permit him to review with the defendant additional discovery regarding certain telephone records. In response, the state's attorney reminded the court that almost two months had passed since the pretrial conference and opined that the telephonic evidence was ‘‘an inconsequential matter'' and ‘‘an excuse to get another continuance.'' The court nevertheless granted a continuance until August 14, 2015, at which time the court cautioned the defendant that he was ‘‘either going to take the offer, or it's going to go to trial.''

         At the August 14, 2015 hearing, Bausch informed the court, Bright, J., that he had discussed the plea offer with the defendant, stating that ‘‘we went over everything, '' and communicated the defendant's desire to reject that offer and proceed to trial. The court canvassed the defendant on that decision. During that canvass, the defendant confirmed that he had discussed the matter with Bausch, and was aware of both the potential maximum sentence in the case and the state's intent to add additional charges that would increase the maximum possible sentence. When asked if he had had sufficient time to talk with Bausch about ‘‘all of your options, '' the defendant replied, ‘‘About the existing charges. I don't know about the future charges.'' When Bausch responded, ‘‘I went over, '' the transcript then indicates that a discussion was held off the record. The court thereafter placed the matter on the firm trial list and informed the parties that a trial would commence in either October or November, 2015. As a final matter, Bausch asked the state to provide another copy of the list of potential additional charges, stating that he ‘‘had some trouble reading'' the copy that the state previously provided.

         The defendant next appeared in court on Friday, October 23, 2015, at which time the state filed a substitute information that contained eight counts, including a charge of kidnapping in the first degree. At the outset of that proceeding, the state's attorney indicated that the parties had met with Hon. James T. Graham, who was scheduled to preside over the defendant's upcoming trial, earlier that day, and that Judge Graham had ‘‘indicated to counsel that . . . the defendant has until Monday to decide whether to elect a court trial or a jury trial.''[6] In response, Bausch submitted certain documents, including a psychological evaluation of the defendant, to the court. Bausch asked the court, Oliver, J., to review those documents and decide whether an additional pretrial conference was warranted. In response, the state indicated that it was ready to proceed, and reminded the court that a pretrial conference was held months earlier and that this new report was provided ‘‘at, literally, the eleventh hour here, right before a trial . . . .'' The court nonetheless agreed to review the report and determine whether a further pre-trial conference was appropriate.

         At the state's request, the court then canvassed the defendant on the part B information that recently was filed, which charged him with being a persistent dangerous felony offender. See footnote 5 of this opinion. During that canvass, the defendant confirmed that he understood that he was charged, under the substitute information, with four counts of attempt to commit murder, as well as with assault and kidnapping charges. The court also asked the defendant if he had any questions for Bausch about ‘‘the new charges'' contained in the substitute information; the defendant replied, ‘‘[n]o.'' The court then continued the matter until Monday, October 26, 2015, ‘‘for a canvass on [the defendant's] decision to have his trial before either a jury or [a] court trial.''

         When the parties appeared on October 26, 2015, Bausch immediately informed Judge Oliver that the defendant wanted to discharge him as legal counsel. The defendant then told the court that he had fired Bausch. Before addressing that issue, the court stated that it had reviewed the materials furnished by Bausch on Friday and had concluded that an additional pretrial conference was not warranted.

         The court then asked the state's attorney if he had anything to say. The state's attorney responded that ‘‘it seems awfully suspicious . . . that on the eve of trial [the defendant is] attempting to do this'' and suggested that the request to discharge was a dilatory tactic. For that reason, the state's attorney opined that the court ‘‘should not let [Bausch] out of this case.'' In response, the court noted that, barring the defendant's waiver of his right to a jury trial, jury selection was scheduled to begin the next day.

         Bausch then made an oral motion to withdraw from the case due to a breakdown in communication with the defendant, stating that the defendant had ‘‘no interest in assisting me or communicating with me'' and opining that their communications were ‘‘in complete disarray.'' The court then asked the defendant to provide the basis for his request that Bausch be discharged. The defendant stated that ‘‘we've been having issues with how to approach this case, '' as monetary issues had arisen due to the defendant's limited resources, which created ‘‘tension'' between the two. As the defendant stated, he did not have ‘‘any more money to give him and we are down to the last minute. . . . [T]here's no money for investigators, there's no money for-the mental health exam you got was done last minute . . . .'' At no time did the defendant express either a desire to represent himself or to ...


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