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State v. Weathers

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

March 19, 2019


          Argued September 20, 2018

         Procedural History

         Information charging the defendant with the crimes of murder, criminal possession of a pistol or revolver, stealing a firearm, and carrying a pistol without a permit, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Fairfield and tried to a three judge court, Kavanewsky, Pavia and E. Richards, Js.; thereafter, the state entered a nolle prosequi as to the charge of stealing a firearm; judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed. Affirmed.

          Dina S. Fisher, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Timothy F. Costello, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were John C. Smriga, state's attorney, and Emily D. Trudeau, assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Keller, Prescott and Harper, Js.


          HARPER, J.

         The defendant, Gregory L. Weathers, appeals[1] from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a trial by a three judge court, [2] of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a (a), criminal possession of a pistol or revolver in violation of General Statutes § 53a-217c (a) (1), and carrying a pistol without a permit in violation of General Statutes § 29-35 (a). On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) the trial court's rejection of his affirmative defense of mental disease or defect was not reasonably supported by the evidence and (2) the court erred as a matter of law in deciding an issue without the aid of expert testimony. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The court reasonably could have found the following facts from the evidence presented at trial.[3] On the morning of March 26, 2015, the victim, Jose Araujo, and several other individuals employed by Burns Construction were installing an underground gas main on Pond Street in Bridgeport. Fernando Oquendo, a patrolman with the Bridgeport Police Department, was working overtime duty at the construction site and had blocked off Pond Street near Chopsey Hill Road.[4] Around the time in question, Officer Oquendo had gone to retrieve coffee for the construction crew, who were in the process of backfilling a trench that had been dug along the side of the road. Matthew Girdzis, one of the crew members, was seated in a dump truck positioned near the trench. The victim was standing on the driver's side of the truck speaking with Girdzis about where they should dump the fill material.

         While the victim and Girdzis were talking, the defendant walked into the work zone and approached the victim. Girdzis had never seen the defendant there before; he was not an employee of Burns Construction. The defendant greeted the victim with a seemingly amicable ‘‘fist bump'' and asked the victim whether the construction company was hiring. The victim, in turn, relayed the question to Girdzis. Speaking to the defendant directly, Girdzis suggested that he go to the construction company's office downtown to fill out an application and ‘‘see what happens.'' By all accounts, there was nothing unusual or remarkable about the defendant's demeanor during his initial interaction with the victim and Girdzis.[5] There was nothing to suggest that any sort of argument or altercation ensued or that the defendant harbored any animosity toward the victim or Girdzis. The defendant did not appear to be acting strangely; he appeared to be rational and to understand what was being said.

         Following this encounter, the defendant walked away, seemingly leaving the work zone, but, in fact, he merely walked around to the other side of the truck and stood near the passenger side door. Meanwhile, Girdzis and the victim had begun walking toward the trench. After a few seconds, the defendant looked up and down the street and, seeing the street empty, proceeded to walk back around the truck and reapproach the victim. In a matter of seconds, the defendant, without saying a word, removed a revolver from his pocket and shot the victim several times. The victim ultimately died from gunshot wounds.

         Immediately after the shooting, the defendant began running up the street, zigzagging across it several times. Several of the victim's coworkers chased the defendant on foot. The defendant, seeing that he was being pursued, stopped momentarily at a parked pickup truck and opened its door but then quickly shut it again and resumed running up the street. The coworkers continued chasing the defendant until he ran in between two houses.

         Members of the Bridgeport Police Department soon arrived on the scene and began canvassing the area. The defendant eventually was located by Officer Darryl Wilson, who found the defendant hiding in some tall bushes in a backyard. Wilson ordered the defendant to show his hands, at which point the defendant began to run. Wilson ordered the defendant to stop and again demanded that he show his hands. The defendant complied. Upon observing the revolver in the defendant's hand, Wilson ordered the defendant several times to drop the weapon and warned the defendant that he was prepared to shoot if the defendant did not comply. After repeating this order, the defendant dropped his weapon. Additional police units arrived a few seconds later, and the defendant was arrested. As he was being arrested, the defendant mumbled something to the effect of, ‘‘it's all messed up'' or ‘‘I messed up.''

         Following his arrest, the defendant was led out from behind the house and into the street, at which point Lieutenant Christopher LaMaine heard the defendant state spontaneously that he had been involved in a ‘‘labor dispute.'' When approached by LaMaine, the defendant again claimed that there had been a ‘‘labor dispute.'' After advising the defendant of his constitutional rights, which the defendant waived, LaMaine questioned him. The defendant seemed to have difficulty focusing, putting his thoughts together, and answering LaMaine's questions fully, and, at times, he rambled on incoherently, causing LaMaine to suspect that the defendant either had a mental illness or was under the influence of phencyclidine (PCP). Upon further questioning, the defendant stated that the victim was a foreman and was not ‘‘letting anyone out here work'' and that he had shot the victim to settle this dispute.

         The defendant subsequently was transported to the police station, where he was interviewed by Detective Paul Ortiz and another detective.[6] As Ortiz observed, there were numerous instances throughout the interview where the defendant either entirely failed to respond to questions or gave less than responsive answers, and some of his statements seemed disorganized. Given his interactions with the defendant, Ortiz thought it was appropriate to have him evaluated at a hospital for possible mental health or drug problems. Nevertheless, the defendant appeared to understand the detectives' questions. He admitted to shooting the victim and expressed remorse for it. He stated that he had been looking for a job and felt that the victim had ‘‘brushed [him] off.'' Following the interview, the defendant was transported to Bridgeport Hospital for evaluation and, the next day, was remanded to the custody of the Commissioner of Correction. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         The defendant subsequently was charged with, inter alia, [7] murder, criminal possession of a firearm, and carrying a pistol without a permit. The defendant elected to be tried by a three judge court and raised the affirmative defense of mental disease or defect pursuant to General Statutes § 53a-13 (a), otherwise known as the insanity defense. ‘‘This defense has both a cognitive and a volitional prong. . . . Under the cognitive prong [of the insanity defense], a person is considered legally insane if, as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity . . . to appreciate the . . . [wrongfulness] of his conduct. . . . Under the volitional prong, a person also would be considered legally insane if he lacks substantial capacity . . . to [control] his conduct to the requirements of law.'' (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Porter v. Commissioner of Correction, 120 Conn.App. 437, 449-50 n.17, 991 A.2d 720, cert. denied, 298 Conn. 901, 3 A.3d 71 (2010). The matter subsequently was tried to the court over the course of two days.

         In its oral decision, the court rejected the defendant's insanity defense and found him guilty of the charged offenses. With respect to the insanity defense, the court found that there was credible evidence that the defendant did suffer from a mental disease or defect, specifically, psychosis of an unspecific nature. Nevertheless, the court determined that the defendant had failed to establish that, as a result of his psychosis, he lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to control his conduct within the requirements of the law.

         With regard to the volitional prong in particular-the only prong at issue in this appeal-the court found that ‘‘the defendant's mental disease did not diminish his ability to conform his behavior. The defendant's actions in shooting [the victim] were not borne out of his psychosis. Simply put, he was acting out of frustration and anger. The defendant was faced with a multitude of stressful and emotional hurdles in his life not of a psychiatric nature which motivated his actions that day. . . . The evidence suggests that he made overtures for a job, and when he was directed to make an application elsewhere, he felt rebuffed and in his own words, felt that he had been brushed off.'' The court further found that the defendant had obeyed police commands and that ‘‘there was nothing remarkable, untoward or aberrant about the defendant's conduct'' during the police interview.[8] On the basis of these findings, the court determined that ‘‘the credible evidence [did] not support a finding that as a result of his mental disease, the defendant lacked the substantial capacity to control his conduct within the requirements of the law.'' The court rendered judgment accordingly and sentenced the defendant to a total effective term of imprisonment of forty-five years. This appeal followed.


         On appeal, the defendant first claims that the court's rejection of his affirmative defense of mental disease or defect was not reasonably supported by the evidence. He argues that the court improperly rejected his expert witnesses' conclusions that he lacked substantial capacity to conform his conduct within the law. He further argues that the court made certain clearly erroneous findings of fact.[9] We disagree.

         As an initial matter, we set forth our standard of review. ‘‘The evaluation of . . . evidence on the issue of legal insanity is [within] the province of the finder of fact . . . . We have repeatedly stated that our review of the conclusions of the trier of fact . . . is limited. . . . This court will construe the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the trial court's [judgment] and will affirm the conclusion of the trier of fact if it is reasonably supported by the evidence and the logical inferences drawn therefrom. . . . The probative force of direct and circumstantial evidence is the same. . . . The credibility of expert witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony and to that of lay witnesses on the issue of sanity is determined by the trier of fact. . . .

         ‘‘The affirmative defense of mental disease or defect is codified in . . . § 53a-13 (a) and provides that [i]n any prosecution for an offense, it shall be an affirmative defense that the defendant, at the time he committed the proscribed act or acts, lacked substantial capacity, as a result of mental disease or defect, either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to control his conduct within the requirements of the law. Whereas an affirmative defense requires the defendant to establish his claim by a preponderance of the evidence, a properly raised defense places the burden on the state to disprove the defendant's claim beyond a reasonable doubt.'' (Citation omitted; emphasis in original; footnote omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Campbell, 169 Conn.App. 156, 161-62, 149 A.3d 1007, cert. denied, 324 Conn. 902, 151 A.3d 1288 (2016).[10]

         To the extent that the defendant challenges the court's factual determinations, ‘‘[o]ur review . . . is limited to whether those findings are clearly erroneous. . . . A court's finding of fact is clearly erroneous and its conclusions drawn from that finding lack sufficient evidence when there is no evidence in the record to support it or when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'' (Citation omitted; emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Altayeb, 126 Conn.App. 383, 387-88, 11 A.3d 1122, cert. denied, 300 Conn. 927, 15 A.3d 628 (2011).

         The following additional facts are relevant to this issue. In support of his affirmative defense, the defendant presented the testimony of two expert witnesses, David Lovejoy and Paul Amble, both of whom produced written evaluations that were admitted into evidence.[11]Lovejoy, a board certified neuropsychologist hired by the defense, examined the defendant on three separate occasions in July, September, and November, 2015. Lovejoy also reviewed a variety of records, conducted interviews with the defendant's wife and two of his friends, and watched the video recording of the police interview.

         According to Lovejoy, the defendant and his wife reported that in the two years leading up to the offense, the defendant had been experiencing multiple ongoing stressors. Lovejoy's evaluation revealed that the defendant had lost his job as a truck driver in 2013 and that he had remained unemployed thereafter, despite continuing efforts to secure employment. Following the loss of his job, the defendant began drinking heavily, which resulted in criminal charges for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs. In January, 2015, the defendant, aware that there was a warrant out for his arrest in connection with these charges, turned himself in to authorities. The defendant remained in prison until his wife was able to secure a bail bond in March, 2015-shortly before the offense in question took place. According to the defendant's representations to Lovejoy, after his release from prison, he began to worry about his family's finances and, over time, started to ‘‘feel crazy'' and experience thoughts of suicide. (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

         According to Lovejoy, ‘‘[i]nformation collected during the clinical interviews with [the defendant] and the collateral interviews with his wife and friends indicated that [the defendant] began to decompensate psychiatrically, beginning on [March 22 or 23, 2015]. Strange behaviors, disrupted sleep, ruminative pacing, tangential and confused thinking, and moments of appearing ‘spaced out' were observed by those who were with him.'' The defendant's wife also indicated to Lovejoy that she had observed the defendant begin to espouse paranoid thoughts related to a belief that she wanted to hurt or kill him.

         Regarding the defendant's conduct and state of mind later that week, Lovejoy's interviews with the defendant revealed that ‘‘[b]y the evening [before and/or morning of the offense, the defendant] appeared to be under the influence of strong beliefs that were not based in reality (delusions).'' More specifically, the defendant reported to Lovejoy that he had begun to believe that he was receiving messages via flashing lights emanating out of his computer screen. In Lovejoy's view, ‘‘[t]hese beliefs had become a prominent part of [the defendant's] clinical presentation, at that time.'' The defendant also reported to Lovejoy that he had begun to hear voices that made critical comments about him. He described these voices as sounding like ‘‘me talking to myself from the inside.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) The defendant further represented to Lovejoy that, by the night before the offense, he had resolved to kill himself because he ‘‘was tired of trying to get [his] thoughts together and . . . wanted the voices to go away, '' but he decided against doing it at that time because he did not want his wife and daughter to have to find his body in the house. (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

         Lovejoy's interviews with the defendant further revealed that, by the morning of the offense, ‘‘auditory hallucinations, delusions and suicidal thinking were present and appeared to be overarching influences on [the defendant's] thinking and behavior.'' More specifically, the defendant reported to Lovejoy that, on the morning of the offense, he had believed that the flashing lights from his computer screen were sending him a message indicating, ‘‘[g]et your gun. You are worthless and others are evil.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) The defendant reported that the message also had indicated that he would receive additional messages from lights outside of his home. The defendant reported that, by this point, he had decided to kill himself at a local cemetery. He further reported, however, that he came upon a construction site displaying a range of colored lights that were flashing at him and that these lights and the voices inside of him told him to stop. ...

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