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State v. Stephenson

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

January 8, 2019

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
JOSEPH A. STEPHENSON

          Argued September 11, 2018

         Procedural History

         Substitute information charging the defendant with the crimes of burglary in the third degree, attempt to commit tampering with physical evidence, and attempt to commit arson in the second degree, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Nor-walk and tried to the jury before White, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

          Vishal K. Garg, for the appellant (defendant).

          Sarah Hanna, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Richard J. Colangelo, Jr., state's attorney, and Michelle Manning, assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Sheldon, Bright and Mihalakos, Js.

          OPINION

          SHELDON, J.

         The defendant, Joseph A. Stephenson, appeals from the judgment of conviction rendered against him after a jury trial in the Stamford Superior Court on charges of burglary in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-103, attempt to commit tampering with physical evidence in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) (2) and (Rev. to 2013) 53a-155 (a) (1), [1] and attempt to commit arson in the second degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) (2) and 53a-112 (a) (1) (B). The defendant claims on appeal that (1) the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his conviction on those charges, and thus that he is entitled to the reversal of his conviction and the entry of a judgment of acquittal on each such charge, and (2) the court improperly prevented him from presenting exculpatory testimony from his trial attorney as to a conversation between them two days before his alleged commission of the charged offenses that tended to contradict the state's claim that he had a special motive for committing those offenses. We agree with the defendant that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to convict him of any of the charged offenses, as the state charged and sought to prove them in this case, and, thus, we conclude that his conviction on those charges must be reversed and this case must be remanded with direction to render a judgment of acquittal thereon. In light of this conclusion, we need not address the defendant's second claim.

         The following procedural history and evidence, as presented at trial, are relevant to our resolution of the defendant's claims. On Sunday, March 3, 2013, at approximately 11:00 p.m., the silent alarm at the Nor-walk Superior Courthouse was triggered by the breaking of a window in the state's attorney's office on the east side of the courthouse.[2] Soon thereafter, Connecticut State Trooper Justin Lund arrived at the courthouse, followed almost immediately by Troopers Darrell Tetreault and Alex Pearston. Upon Tetreault's arrival, he saw Lund standing ‘‘right against the building, at the window, with his firearm deployed yelling at somebody in the building.'' Because, however, Lund was later injured and could not testify at the defendant's trial, no evidence was presented as to what, if anything, he saw or heard through the broken courthouse window at that time.

         The troopers promptly established a perimeter around the outside of the courthouse and radioed for the assistance of a canine unit. When a canine unit arrived several minutes later, the troopers followed it inside the courthouse, which they promptly searched for intruders, without success.

         The searching officers determined that the broken window was located in an interior office on the east side of the state's attorney's office, which was shared by two assistant state's attorneys, each of whom kept a desk and certain personal effects in the office. Photos of the interior office taken after the break-in showed that a set of blinds that had been hanging in the window through which the intruder entered the building were bent and broken, but still hanging where they were when the intruder came in through them.

         Inside the larger state's attorney's office, the troopers found a black duffel bag on the floor near the south end of the corridor running past the doors of the three interior offices on the east side of the larger office, including the middle office where the intruder had broken the window and entered the building. The bag thus lay to the far left of a person entering the larger office through the door of the interior office with the broken window. Inside the duffel bag were six unopened blue canisters of industrial strength kerosene with their tags and UPC strips cut off. The officers swabbed the bag and the six canisters of kerosene for DNA.

         Meanwhile, in the ‘‘secretary's desk area'' in the northwest corner of the larger state's attorney's office, across the room from and to the right of a person entering the larger office from the interior office with the broken window, the troopers found several case files lying in a disorganized pile on the floor, where they appeared to have been dumped, dropped or knocked over. The secretary's desk area contained two adjacent desks on which telephones, computer monitors, other case files, assorted office equipment and personal memorabilia were arrayed. The desk further to the north, in front of which the pile of files was found, had two partially open drawers on its left side, above which other case files were loosely stacked. To the left of and behind the chair of a person sitting at that desk were two large lateral file cabinets with case files densely packed on open shelves inside them. No evidence was presented as to which case files were found either in the disorganized pile on the floor or in the loose stack on the adjacent desk. Nor, because those case files were never identified, was there any evidence as to where such files had been stored in the office before the intruder entered or whether, if the intruder had moved such files to where they were found from another location in the office, the intruder had touched or disturbed anything in any such location in such a way as to shed light on the object or purpose of his search. None of the case files or any other objects in any locations where they were stored before or found after the break-in was dusted for fingerprints or swabbed for DNA.

         The troopers also recovered a ball-peen hammer from the vestibule area just inside an exterior door to the courthouse, marked ‘‘employee entrance only, '' through which it was later determined that the intruder fled from the courthouse after the troopers arrived, and began to search inside it. The troopers also swabbed the hammer for DNA.

         During their ensuing investigation, police investigators obtained and reviewed surveillance videos of the outside of the courthouse, which had been taken on the evening of the break-in by cameras installed on the courthouse itself and in a beauty salon to the east of the courthouse. Video footage obtained from those cameras included a sequence in which an ‘‘individual . . . dressed all in black, [who] appeared to have a black mask on, [a] black jacket, [and] black pants, and appeared to be carrying a black or dark colored bag . . . approached the side of the courthouse, which is the side that the window was broken on, the side adjacent to the beauty salon.'' It also included, in the hour before the foregoing sequence was recorded, several other sequences in which a suspicious vehicle-a light colored SUV with a defective rear brake light and a roof rack on the top, a brush bar on the front, and a tire mounted on the back-could be seen driving slowly past the front of the courthouse and driving in and out of the courthouse parking lot. Finally, it included a short sequence, filmed shortly after the troopers entered the courthouse, in which a person dressed all in black emerged from the east side door of the courthouse and ran away across the parking lot where the suspicious vehicle had been seen before the break-in.

         The troopers later identified the make, model and vintage of the suspicious vehicle seen in the surveillance videos as a Land Rover Freelander manufactured between the years 2002 and 2005. They subsequently determined that the database of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles listed 167 registered vehicles that matched the suspicious vehicle's description. Later, upon narrowing their search to matching vehicles registered to persons living in the Norwalk and Stamford areas, investigators learned that one such vehicle, a 2002 Land Rover Freelander, was registered to Chuck Morrell, the defendant's stepfather. When Morrell was interviewed by the police, he informed them that he had purchased the vehicle for his wife, the defendant's mother, in 2012, and that both the defendant and his mother used the vehicle and were listed as insureds on his automobile insurance policy. When police investigators finally examined Morrell's vehicle several ...


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