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State v. Mota-Royaceli

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

December 18, 2018


          Argued September 25, 2018

         Procedural History

         Substitute information charging the defendant with the crimes of manslaughter in the first degree and tampering with evidence, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford and tried to the jury before Kwak, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty of manslaughter in the first degree, from which the defendant appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Lisa J. Steele, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Stephen A. Lebedevitch, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Denise B. Smoker, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Gail P. Hardy, state's attorney, and Anthony Bochicchio, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Lavine, Sheldon and Bishop, Js.


          LAVINE, J.

         The defendant, Jayson Mota-Royaceli, appeals from the judgment of conviction rendered after a trial to the jury, on the charge of manslaughter in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-55 (a) (1). The defendant claims that the trial court improperly (1) limited his voir dire of the venire panel and (2) gave the jury a Chip Smith instruction at an impermissibly coercive time. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The jury was presented with evidence of the following facts. The defendant and the victim worked together and attended the wedding reception of one of their coworkers. During the course of the night, the victim touched the defendant's buttocks, causing the defendant to get angry. The victim tried to fight the defendant, but the defendant did not want to fight. After they separately left the reception, there was phone communication between the two, and they ultimately drove to and met in a parking lot. After a discussion, the defendant returned to his car, and after getting in, he thought that he saw the victim with a firearm, and drove the car into the victim, killing him. No gun was found on the scene. Following the trial, the defendant was convicted of one count of manslaughter in the first degree in violation of § 53a-55 (a) (1) and acquitted of two counts of tampering with evidence in violation of § 53a-155 (a) (1).[1] This appeal followed.


         The defendant claims that the court erred in limiting defense counsel's line of questioning of prospective jurors regarding the finality of their verdict. Specifically, the defendant argues that without being allowed to pursue this line of questioning, ‘‘there [was] an impermissible risk that one or more jurors entertaineda belief that the ultimate task of determining whether the defendant is guilty or not could be corrected in a higher court.'' We are unpersuaded.

         Jury selection for the defendant's trial began on October 22, 2015. During voir dire, defense counsel's line of questioning included inquiries regarding the finality of a jury's verdict.[2] After the state objected, the court allowed the line of questioning but ordered defense counsel to reword the questions. The next day, however, upon reconsidering the state's objection, the court precluded defense counsel from asking venirepersons whether they believed that their verdict as jurors would be final. The defendant argues that the court erred in precluding this line of questioning, and that in doing so, the court deprived the defendant of his right to inquire into potential bias. We disagree.

         ‘‘Voir dire plays a critical function in assuring the criminal defendant that his [or her] [s]ixth [a]mendment right to an impartial jury will be honored. . . . Part of the guarantee of a defendant's right to an impartial jury is an adequate voir dire to identify unqualified jurors. . . . Our constitutional and statutory law permit each party, typically through his or her attorney, to question each prospective juror individually, outside the presence of other prospective jurors, to determine [his or her] fitness to serve on the jury. . . . Because the purpose of voir dire is to discover if there is any likelihood that some prejudice is in the [prospective] juror's mind [that] will even subconsciously affect his [or her] decision of the case, the party who may be adversely affected should be permitted [to ask] questions designed to uncover that prejudice. This is particularly true with reference to the defendant in a criminal case. . . . The purpose of voir dire is to facilitate [the] intelligent exercise of peremptory challenges and to help uncover factors that would dictate disqualification for cause.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State Edwards, 314 Conn. 465, 483, 102 A.3d 52 (2014).

         It is well settled that ‘‘[t]he court has wide discretion in conducting the voir dire . . . and the exercise of that discretion will not constitute reversible error unless it has clearly been abused or harmful prejudice appears to have resulted.'' (Citations omitted.) State Dahl-gren, 200 Conn. 586, 601, 512 A.2d 906 (2009).

         ‘‘A defendant will not prevail on appeal just because he might be correct in asserting that a prohibited line of questioning would have exposed potential bias.'' State Thornton, 112 Conn.App. 694, 705, 963 A.2d 1099, cert. denied, 291 Conn. 914, 970 A.2d 727 (2009). ‘‘We have repeatedly stated that a juror's knowledge or ignorance concerning questions of law is not a proper subject of inquiry on voir dire.'' State Dahlgren, supra, 200 Conn. 601.

         As an initial matter, we reject the defendant's characterization of the prohibited inquiry as relating to ‘‘bias.'' The term ‘‘bias, '' as commonly used, refers to a predisposition or tendency to view a person or circumstance in an unfair way. The trial court determined that the questioning regarding finality was improper, as it concerned the understanding of legal concepts. We agree with this determination, as the line of questioning by defense counsel improperly inquired into legal knowledge. Although the defendant argues that the questions were not improper questions of law, he emphasizes the importance of gauging a venireperson's ‘‘aware[ness] of the possibility of post-conviction proceedings.'' We fail to see the distinction between improper questions regarding a venireperson's knowledge of law, and the questions that the defendant sought to ask. These questions did not probe potential bias but, rather, inquired into a venireperson's awareness of legal proceedings.

         Additionally, the defendant has failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the court's ruling. The defendant argues that prejudice arose from the risk that a juror might have believed that a higher court could correct an improper verdict. This argument is speculative as there is no ...

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