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State v. Ramos

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 12, 2018


          Argued January 9, 2018

         Procedural History

         Substitute information charging the defendant with the crime of murder, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Fairfield and tried to the jury before Kahn, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm, from which the defendant appealed. Affirmed.

          Sean P. Barrett, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Peter G. Billings, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          James A. Killen, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were John C. Smriga, state's attorney, and Michael A. DeJoseph, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Lavine, Bright and Eveleigh, Js.


          LAVINE, J.

         The defendant, Abimael Ramos, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered following a jury trial, of intentional manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-55 (a) (1) and 53a-55a. On appeal, he claims that (1) he was deprived of his rights to present a defense and to cross-examine witnesses, pursuant to the sixth amendment to the federal constitution, when the trial court prevented him from questioning police officers about alleged inadequacies in their investigation of the victim's death, and (2) the trial court abused its discretion in admitting into evidence, under the state of mind exception to the hearsay rule, testimony regarding the victim's relationship with the defendant prior to her death. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         By way of a single count information, the state charged the defendant with murder with a firearm in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-54a (a) and 53-202k. The charge stemmed from the death of Luz Morales, the victim, who died from a single gunshot wound to her abdomen. A jury found the defendant not guilty of murder, but guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm. The court accepted the verdict, rendered a judgment of conviction, and sentenced the defendant to a term of imprisonment of forty years, five of which are a mandatory minimum, to run concurrently with a sentence he then was already serving. This appeal followed. Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.


         We first address the defendant's claim that the trial court deprived him of his sixth amendment rights. According to the defendant, the court improperly prevented him from questioning the investigating police officers about their alleged failure to investigate a potential connection between the victim's death and a burglary at a former residence that he shared with the victim. He claims that the court deprived him of both his right to present a defense and to cross-examine witnesses.

         The state argues that the defendant's proposed line of questioning addressed a ‘‘purely speculative possibility [regarding third-party culpability that] was not relevant to the jury's determination . . . and, furthermore, that . . . carried with it a substantial risk of unfair prejudice to the state [by] diverting the jury's attention to collateral matters.'' (Citation omitted.) According to the state, the court properly exercised its discretion in limiting the inquiry into alleged deficiencies in the police investigation ‘‘[absent] anything other than a bare suspicion that the victim's death . . . was in any way related to the [previous] burglary . . . .''[1] We agree with the state.

         The following additional facts, which the jury reasonably could have found, and procedural history are relevant to our decision. For approximately five years, the defendant and the victim were in a romantic relationship. They lived together at 761 Wood Avenue in Bridgeport at the time of the victim's death, and previously had lived together at 222 Lenox Avenue in Bridgeport.

         At approximately 11:30 p.m., on May 23, 2011, Christina Catlin heard the defendant, her neighbor, banging on her front door, stating ‘‘help her, help her.'' After Catlin opened the door, the defendant ran back to his house, and she followed. When Catlin entered the defendant's residence, she saw the victim lying on her back, naked, and ‘‘very, very pale, '' at the top of a staircase. The victim had a large cut near her left eyebrow, ‘‘a tiny hole'' near her belly button, and blood underneath her. Catlin asked the defendant to call 911, but when he did not respond, she grabbed the cell phone from his hand and did so. Medical personnel subsequently took the victim to a hospital, where she later died from a gunshot wound to her abdomen.

         In the course of their investigation into the victim's death, police officers questioned the defendant about the night of May 23, 2011. In various statements he made to the police, the defendant claimed that two unidentified Jamaican or Haitian men broke into his home, attacked him, and shot the victim before fleeing down his driveway. He provided partial descriptions of the men, noting that one had a missing tooth, the other had a scruffy beard, and they ‘‘[were not] big dudes, '' standing at about five feet, eight inches or five feet, seven inches in height.

         Within hours of the victim's death, William Simpson, a K-9 handler with the Bridgeport Police Department, and his K-9 dog, Balu, were dispatched to 761 Wood Avenue. According to Simpson, he responded to ‘‘a claim of home invasion'' where ‘‘two men had been involved.'' He also testified that Balu identified a trail of human scent that started in the rear of 761 Wood Avenue and continued ‘‘[d]own Wood Avenue [for] two or three blocks'' until reaching another street, where Balu lost the scent.

         During a video-recorded interview on May 24, 2011, which was admitted into evidence, investigating officers questioned the defendant about a burglary that occurred at 222 Lenox Avenue in September, 2010, while the defendant and the victim lived there.[2] In fact, Detective Todd Toth, one of the investigating officers who testified at trial, told the defendant, ‘‘[T]he reason we asked about the break-in at Lenox Avenue is [that] we were wondering if it's the same people [whom you claimed were involved in shooting the victim].'' The defendant later informed police officers that the reason he and the victim moved to 761 Wood Avenue was because of the September, 2010 burglary at 222 Lenox Avenue and their fear that it might happen again.

         Norman Pattis, counsel for the defendant, sought to cross-examine Toth about his knowledge of the Lenox Avenue burglary. Pattis asked Toth whether he had spoken to Carmen Rivera-Torres, the victim's aunt and the only eyewitness to the burglary, and specifically inquired whether he had ‘‘asked her about the identifying characteristics of the persons who broke in . . . .'' Toth testified, ‘‘I believe we did.'' Pattis then asked, ‘‘Did you ask her if they had Caribbean accents, Jamaican, Haitian, let's say?'' Toth did not answer that question, however, as the state's attorney immediately objected and stated that this particular matter was the subject of pretrial motions. The court held a sidebar discussion and stated that it would hear argument outside the presence of the jury.

         In the absence of the jury, the court noted that the Lenox Avenue burglary was the subject of a motion in limine filed by the state[3] and stated that it had sustained the state's objection ‘‘because, based on what has transpired thus far, I don't believe that the defense has made the required showing for a third-party culpability [defense], and to get into that line of questioning would be to do so.'' Pattis nonetheless argued that he did not intend to argue third-party culpability; rather, ‘‘[his] questions are going to the thoroughness of the investigation and whether [the investigating officers] prejudged things. And so, during the course of the interviews with [the defendant], the accents came up. [Toth] acknowledged going to see [Rivera-Torres] and acknowledged discussing this. If he didn't ask about the accents, and I don't know candidly what his answer will be, that will be probative . . . in terms of the thoroughness of the investigation and leaving potentially exculpatory evidence on the table . . . . So I didn't-if he said yes, you know, I think I would have been stuck. But I don't think he did based on-I just don't think he did.'' Pattis also argued: ‘‘Had he said no, I could have argued, perhaps, hey, you know, these [police officers] had made up their mind[s] and decided early to prejudge the case . . . .'' The court reiterated its prior ruling, and added that it also sustained the state's objection on the ground that there was no foundation establishing that Rivera-Torres ‘‘either saw or even spoke to the individuals or individual that conducted the Lenox Avenue break-in.''[4]

         Pattis also sought to cross-examine Detective Walberto Cotto, another investigating officer who testified at trial, about the police investigation into the possible connection between the Lenox Avenue burglary and the victim's death. During an offer of proof held outside the presence of the jury, Cotto testified that he was aware of the prior Lenox Avenue burglary, which possibly involved two black males, but that the defendant had informed him that the Lenox Avenue burglars did not have anything to do with the victim's death. According to Cotto, his understanding of the Lenox Avenue burglary was based solely on the defendant's statements. Pattis once again argued: ‘‘The thoroughness of the investigation and the steps that officers took in investigating [the defendant] I think are fair game within the sixth amendment. We may well have had third-party culpability evidence had the officers done something with this information and investigated it. They didn't.''[5] The court again ruled that it would not permit this line of questioning without a showing that the two incidents were somehow connected.

         Pattis attempted to revisit the Lenox Avenue burglary for a third time during the defendant's case-in-chief. During an offer of proof held outside the presence of the jury, Pattis first questioned Rivera-Torres. She testified that she lived above the defendant and the victim at the 222 Lenox Avenue address when the burglary happened. According to her, on September 9, 2010, she noticed a familiar looking ‘‘[six]-foot-[two], 220, 240 pound African-American male coming out of [the defendant's and the victim's] apartment.'' She later learned that their apartment had been burglarized, and spoke with police officers about her observations before and after the victim's death. She testified: ‘‘I had spoken to [Cotto] back in 2010 when [the burglary] occurred. And then I did speak to him [after the victim's death] because I wanted to believe that that's what happened.'' Pattis indicated that he would not seek to elicit any further testimony from Rivera-Torres.

         Later during the offer of proof, the following examination took place between Pattis and Toth regarding the police investigation into a possible connection between ...

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