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State v. Grasso

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

April 9, 2019

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
ANGELA C. GRASSO

          Argued October 12, 2018

         Procedural History

         Substitute information charging the defendant with the crimes of murder and manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford and tried to the jury before Crawford, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm, from which the defendant appealed. Affirmed.

          Alice Osedach, senior assistant public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

          Rocco A. Chiarenza, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Gail P. Hardy, state's attorney, and Vicki Melchiorre, supervisory assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Sheldon, Keller and Moll, Js.

          OPINION

          KELLER, J.

         The defendant, Angela C. Grasso, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered following a jury trial, of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm in violation of General Statutes § 53a-55a.[1] The defendant claims that (1) the state failed to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt that she had acted in self-defense and (2) the trial court violated her rights to due process and to the effective assistance of counsel by denying the jury's request to rehear the closing arguments of the prosecutor and defense counsel at trial. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         On the basis of the evidence presented at trial, the jury reasonably could have found the following facts. One evening in mid-March, 2014, the defendant stopped into a bar in Hartford, where she encountered an acquaintance, the victim, Jose Mendez. She had not spoken with the victim in many years. The defendant and the victim made eye contact, recognized one another, and engaged in light conversation. The victim flirted with the defendant, and he asked her for her telephone number. The defendant declined to give her number to the victim and stated to him that she was not interested in dating anyone. Then, the defendant and the victim parted ways.

         At the time of the events underlying this appeal, the defendant had been employed for four years as a bail bondsperson by a bail bonds company. The day after the defendant spoke with the victim at the bar in Hartford, the defendant was in front of a Hartford courthouse distributing business cards for the bail bonds company by which she was employed, when she encountered the victim as he was exiting the courthouse. The victim then told the defendant that he might be in need of her professional services, and the defendant gave him her telephone number. Soon thereafter, the defendant and the victim spoke on the telephone and exchanged text messages. Before long, the victim expressed his romantic interest in the defendant, telling her that he had always had ‘‘a crush'' on her and that she was ‘‘the woman of [his] dreams.'' On both days of the weekend that followed, the defendant drove to Hartford and spent time alone with the victim.

         Thereafter, the defendant and the victim saw each other often. The victim expressed his desire to be in a romantic relationship with the defendant. In the defendant's words, the victim told her ‘‘all of the things that a girl would want to hear . . . .'' This included his desire to help support her financially, to live with her, and to marry her. After the first week, their relationship became sexual in nature. The defendant permitted the victim to spend the night with her at her home, but only after her two young children had fallen asleep.

         Approximately one week after the relationship began, the victim, who was unemployed, told the defendant that his automobile needed to be repaired. The defendant paid for a rental automobile for the victim to use from March 28 through March 31, 2014. After the victim returned the rented automobile, however, his automobile needed additional repairs. The defendant then paid for a second rental automobile for the victim to use from April 2 through April 9, 2014.[2]

         The defendant told the victim that she was not rich and could barely afford to pay her rent. She said that she was ‘‘obsessed'' with money because, only a few months before she began her relationship with the victim, she was having difficulty obtaining food for herself and her children. Nevertheless, the defendant spent in excess of $500 on automobile rentals for the victim's benefit. In that same time frame, moreover, the defendant gave the victim $1000 after he told her that he needed money with which to pay his bills, rent, and car repair expenses.

         During the morning of April 8, 2014, while repairs were being made to a tire on the defendant's automobile, the victim and the defendant visited the victim's sister at her home. Prior to the visit, the victim told the defendant that it would be nice if she befriended his sister. When the visit was over, however, the victim accused the defendant of flirting with his sister and wanting to have sexual relations with her, which the defendant vehemently denied. As the victim drove the defendant from his sister's residence to the repair facility to retrieve her automobile, he became violently angry. He called the defendant a ‘‘stupid bitch, '' threatened her life if she ever touched his sister, and spat in her face. While he was driving on the highway, he tossed her cell phone out of the moving automobile. Soon after she retrieved her automobile, the defendant went to a store and obtained another telephone.

         The victim and the defendant spoke again later that day. The victim apologized to the defendant and explained that a prior girlfriend of his had engaged in a sexual relationship with his sister. The defendant visited the victim later that day. In text messages exchanged between the defendant and the victim during the evening hours of April 8, 2014, into the early morning hours of April 9, 2014, both the defendant and the victim questioned their relationship. The victim suggested that the defendant find someone who could ‘‘buy and give [her] the world'' and think about whether she really wanted to be with him. The defendant expressed her frustration with the way the victim was treating her. She told him that she was upset with him and that her hands were still shaking as a result of his behavior earlier that day. She said that, despite the fact that the victim claimed to love her, he did not really know her and that he was causing her pain. In her text messages to the victim late in the evening on April 8, 2014, the defendant suggested that the victim was welcome to come over to her house. He did not do so.

         Shortly after 7 a.m. on April 9, 2014, the victim sent the defendant a text message in which he wished her a good morning. When the defendant did not reply immediately, the victim accused her of being with another man, told her to enjoy her life, and told her that he would leave the rental automobile in his aunt's driveway. The defendant replied that she had not been with anyone and did not reply immediately to his text message because she was taking a shower. The defendant remarked that the victim was ‘‘paranoid.'' The defendant drove her son to school and ran an errand for work. In numerous telephone calls and text messages throughout the day, the disagreement between the defendant and the victim continued to escalate.

         In a series of text messages sent by the victim to the defendant at or about 8:55 a.m., he called the defendant a ‘‘nasty bitch . . . .'' He threatened to crash the automobile she had rented for him and mockingly observed that his doing so would ruin her credit. The defendant called the victim a ‘‘little boy'' and warned him not to threaten her.[3] She stated that although she had spent $1500 on him, she had learned his ‘‘[true] colors.''

         Shortly thereafter, the victim sent the defendant another threatening text message, this time suggesting that he was going to disclose sensitive information that would hurt the company for which she worked, thereby jeopardizing her employer, her continued employment, or both. He warned her not to turn to the police for help.[4] In reply, the defendant told him to return the rented automobile.

         The victim once again accused the defendant of cheating on him. He suggested that he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her and that they should both be tested. The victim once more suggested that he would retaliate against her by exposing negative information that she had shared with him about the bail bonds company for which she worked.[5] In a text message, the defendant attempted to defuse the victim's anger. She replied that he was not thinking clearly, she had never cheated on him, and they should act like adults. The defendant implored the victim to permit her to continue to earn a living.[6]

         In text messages that followed, the victim suggested that he was about to disclose damaging information about her employer. He swore that he would ‘‘pull up [in] front of the court house and put u down to all the bondsman out there, '' adding, ‘‘try me I have the pictures and texts to back it up . . . .'' When the defendant asked what she had done to the victim, he replied by demanding an additional $600 from her.[7]

         Despite the victim's repeated threats to reveal detrimental information about the bail bonds company, the defendant did not ask the victim what information he was threatening to reveal or otherwise reflect confusion with respect to his threat. Instead, the defendant referred to the victim as a ‘‘snitch, '' and reminded him that she already had given him both money and a place to stay.[8] The victim assured her that she would not leave him stranded without money or an automobile. After the defendant and the victim spoke on the telephone, the victim sent the defendant yet another text message in which he threatened to jeopardize her employment, warning her: ‘‘U hang up on me one more time kiss ur job by . . . .'' He reiterated his demand for more money, telling her that he needed $600 by noon that day and that he was tired of letting her think that she could take advantage of him.

         During the morning of April 9, 2014, the defendant communicated by text messaging with Jose Cotto. Cotto was her former boyfriend and the father of one of her two children. In a text message that the defendant sent to Cotto at 10:19 a.m., after Cotto discussed his desire to provide for his children, she revealed that she was in a predicament that jeopardized her freedom and her ability to parent her children. She wrote: ‘‘I will be dead or in jail soon so my dad will hav[e] them [t]hanks . . . .'' Cotto replied, ‘‘Why?????, '' but the defendant did not respond.

         In a text message sent by the victim to the defendant at 11:22 a.m. that same day, he questioned whether the defendant had called the police, and she replied that she had not done so. The victim, alluding to his statements to reveal information detrimental to the defendant, asked her ‘‘how [it's] gonna be'' and stated that he was on his way to his attorney's office. By 1:30 p.m., however, the defendant and the victim had agreed to speak with one another in person later that afternoon.

         Before the defendant and the victim saw one another during the afternoon of April 9, 2014, the defendant contacted and visited with Maria Quinonez. Although they had not spoken for many years, the defendant and Quinonez knew one another because the defendant and Quinonez' brother had a daughter together. Quinonez also had known the victim for a long time as well. She was a mother figure in the victim's life and had cared for him when he was younger. The defendant was emotional and frightened when she called Quinonez; she told her that she needed her to intervene on her behalf with the victim because he was threatening her. Qui-nonez suggested that the defendant should contact the police, but the defendant did not want to do so because she feared that the victim would reveal information to the police that was detrimental to the bail bonds company and in fact could result in the company being ‘‘shut down . . . .'' At one point during the defendant's conversation with Quinonez, the victim called the defendant's cell phone, and she put the call on speak- erphone. The victim was unhappy that the defendant had involved Quinonez in their dispute, told the defendant that he wanted her to ‘‘get herself checked out, '' and screamed that he was going to kill her. Before the defendant ended the conversation by slamming the cell phone shut, however, she replied ‘‘that she had guns, too . . . .'' After she ended her visit with Quinonez, the defendant went to her place of employment for a short period of time, where she obtained her paycheck. Meanwhile, the victim continued to demand that the defendant meet him to give him money.

         Several minutes before 4 p.m., the defendant arrived at a bank located at the intersection of Sisson Avenue and Park Street in Hartford. Although the bank was still open when she arrived, the defendant did not transact any business there. Instead, the defendant waited in her automobile in the parking lot of the bank, called the victim, and told him that she was unable to get the money he had demanded from her because the bank was closed. At approximately 4:39 p.m., the victim arrived at the bank in the rented automobile, and the defendant and the victim spoke to one another through the driver's windows of their respective automobiles. Then, the defendant and the victim drove separately to a restaurant that was located nearby on Park Street in Hartford. The defendant left her automobile in the restaurant's parking lot and got into the defendant's automobile.

         As he had done throughout the day, the victim expressed his anger that he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the defendant. He drove the defendant from the restaurant parking lot to a medical clinic, which was located on Coventry Street in the north end of Hartford, to be tested. At approximately 5 p.m., they arrived at the clinic. The defendant and the victim exited the automobile and walked into the lobby of the clinic. There, the victim spoke with a security guard, who informed him that the clinic was closed for the day. The victim used a restroom at the clinic before he and the defendant left the clinic together.

         After the victim left the clinic with the defendant, he drove on the highway for a period of time. He accused the defendant of having sexual relations with her former boyfriend, Cotto. Inan attempt to prove the truthfulness of his accusation, he ordered the defendant to use her cell phone to call Cotto and to use the speakerphone function so that he could overhear the conversation. The defendant complied with the request. During the defendant's brief conversation with Cotto, the victim instructed the defendant to ask Cotto if he would have sexual relations with her. After Cotto declined the defendant's offer and questioned why it was being made, the victim ended the call.

         By 6 p.m., the victim was driving the rental automobile on Prospect Avenue in West Hartford. As he approached a fast food restaurant, he stated to the defendant, who was in the front passenger seat, that he was hungry and wanted to get something to eat. He decreased the speedof the automobile and momentarily took his attention away from the defendant. As he did so, the defendant reached for her purse, which was on the floor directly behind the passenger seat. The defendant quickly retrieved a handgun from her open purse and shot the victim in his right temple, incapacitating him immediately. The defendant dropped the handgun and grabbed the steering wheel in an attempt to control the automobile, but it crashed into a fence. Once the automobile came to a stop, the defendant frantically exited the vehicle. She was unable to open the passenger side door but climbed out of the automobile through the rear driver's side door.

         The defendant called 911 to report that she had shot someone but ended the call before providing the 911 dispatcher with additional information. The police arrived on the scene soon thereafter. Emergency medical personnel treated the victim at the scene of the shooting and transported him to Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center. The victim died from the gunshot wound shortly after his arrival at the hospital.

         After the defendant was transported to West Hartford police headquarters, she submitted to a lengthy videotaped interview, and, in a written statement, memorialized her version of the events surrounding the victim's death. The defendant admitted that she had shot the victim but claimed that she had done so because he had stated that he was going to drive her to her home in Plainville, kill her family members in her presence, and then kill her. Additional facts will beset forthas necessary.

         I

         First, the defendant argues that the state failed to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt that she had acted in self-defense. We disagree.

         Before we consider whether the state satisfied its burden to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant's claimed defense, we first must explain the theory of defense that the defendant pursued at trial. See, e.g., State v. Revels, 313 Conn. 762, 779, 99 A.3d 1130 (2014) (in evaluating whether state has disproven defense beyond reasonable doubt, reviewing court focuses only on theory of defense advanced by defendant during trial), cert. denied, U.S., 135 S.Ct. 1451, 191 L.Ed.2d 404 (2015); State v. Cruz, 75 Conn.App. 500, 508-12, 816 A.2d 683 (2003) (same), aff'd, 269 Conn. 97, 848 A.2d 445 (2004). The defendant's theory of defense is reflected in her written request to charge, in which she asked the court to instruct the jury that it should consider whether her conduct was justified because she acted in defense of herself.[9]

         ‘‘Under our Penal Code, self-defense, as defined in [General Statutes] § 53a-19 (a) . . . is a defense, rather than an affirmative defense. See General Statutes § 53a-16. 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. See General Statutes § 53a-12. Consequently, a defendant has no burden of persuasion for a claim of self-defense; he has only a burden of production. That is, he merely is required to introduce sufficient evidence to warrant presenting his claim of self-defense to the jury. . . . Once the defendant has done so, it becomes the state's burden to disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. General Statutes § 53a-12 (a) . . . .'' (Citations omitted; emphasis in original; footnotes omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Clark, 264 Conn. 723, 730-31, 826 A.2d 128 (2003); see also State v. Reddick, 174 Conn.App. 536, 552, 166 A.3d 754, cert. denied, 327 Conn. 921, 171 A.3d 58 (2017), cert. denied, U.S., 138 S.Ct. 1027, 200 L.Ed.2d 285 (2018).

         Section 53a-19 codifies the narrow circumstances in which a person is justified in using deadly physical force on another person in self-defense. Under § 53a-19 (a), ‘‘deadly physical force may not be used unless the actor reasonably believes that such other person is (1) using or about to use deadly physical force, or (2) inflicting or about to inflict great bodily harm.'' ‘‘It is well settled that under § 53a-19 (a), a person may justifiably use deadly physical force in self-defense only if he reasonably believes both that (1) his attacker is using or about to use deadly physical force against him, or is inflicting or about to inflict great bodily harm, and (2) that deadly physical force is necessary to repel such attack. . . . [Our Supreme Court] repeatedly [has] indicated that the test a jury must apply in analyzing the second requirement . . . is a subjective-objective one. The jury must view the situation from the perspective of the defendant. Section 53a-19 (a) requires, however, that the defendant's belief ultimately must be found to be reasonable.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Reddick, supra, 174 Conn.App. 552. Even then, however, ‘‘a person is not justified in using deadly physical force upon another person if he or she knows that he or she can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety (1) by retreating . . . or (2) by surrendering possession of property to a person asserting a claim of right thereto, or (3) by complying with a demand that he or she abstain from performing an act which he or she is not obliged to perform.'' General Statutes § 53a-19 (b). Moreover, under § 53a-19 (c), ‘‘a person is not justified in using physical force when (1) with intent to cause physical injury or death to another person, he provokes the use of physical force by such other person, or (2) he is the initial aggressor, except that his use of physical force upon another person under such circumstances is justifiable if he withdraws from the encounter and effectively communicates to such other person his intent to do so, but such other person notwithstanding continues or threatens the use of physical force, or (3) the physical force involved was the product of a combat by agreement not specifically authorized by law.''

         To obtain a conviction, the state had to sustain its burden of disproving beyond a reasonable doubt any of the essential elements of self-defense involving the use of deadly physical force[10] or to sustain its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the statutory exceptions to self-defense codified in § 53a-19 (b) and (c) applied.[11] See State v. Singleton, 292 Conn. 734, 747-48, 974 A.2d 679 (2009); State v. Corchado, 188 Conn. 653, 663-64, 453 A.2d 427 (1982). ‘‘[U]pon a valid claim of self-defense, a defendant is entitled to proper jury instructions on the elements of self-defense so that the jury may ascertain whether the state has met its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault was not justified.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Clark, supra, 264 Conn. 731.

         ‘‘On appeal, the standard for reviewing sufficiency claims in conjunction with a justification offered by the defense is the same standard used when examining claims of insufficiency of the evidence. . . . In reviewing a sufficiency of the evidence claim, we apply a two part test. First, we construe the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict. Second, we determine whether upon the facts so construed and the inferences reasonably drawn therefrom the [jury] reasonably could have concluded that the cumulative force of the evidence established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt . . . . This court cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the jury if there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. . . . Moreover, we do not ask whether there is a reasonable view of the evidence that would support a reasonable hypothesis of innocence. We ask, instead, whether there is a reasonable view of the evidence that supports the jury's verdict of guilty.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Revels, supra, 313 Conn. 778; see also State v. Allan, 311 Conn. 1, 25, 83 A.3d 326 (2014). As we have discussed previously in this opinion, the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to sustaining the jury's verdict, must be sufficient to disprove one or more of the essential elements of the defense or to prove a statutory disability to rely on the defense. See, e.g., State v. Singleton, supra, 292 Conn. 747-48.

         During closing argument, defense counsel discussed in great detail the evidence that he claimed to support the defense. Defense counsel did not dispute that the defendant used deadly physical force by shooting the victim.[12] In focusing on why the shooting occurred, defense counsel argued that the evidence reflected that the defendant had acted under extreme duress after the victim made viable threats that he would kill her and members of her family. Defense counsel argued that, under the circumstances, it was objectively reasonable for the defendant to believe that the killing of her or members of her family ‘‘was going to happen . . . . It's imminent . . . .''

         The defendant did not testify at trial. In discussing the evidence, defense counsel heavily relied on the videotaped and written statements that the defendant provided to the police in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as well as the text messages that had been exchanged between the victim and the defendant, several of which we have described previously in this opinion.

         In relevant part, the evidence demonstrated that the defendant told the police that, throughout the day on April 9, 2014, the victim became increasingly angry with her. He accused her of being unfaithful, having given him a sexually transmitted disease, and not having provided him with money. The victim demanded money from the defendant, threatened to crash the automobile she had rented for him, and threatened to jeopardize her employment by publicizing sensitive information that she had revealed to the victim about the bail bonds company by which she was employed. Most important to the defense, however, was the fact that the defendant had told the police that, throughout the day, the victim repeatedly threatened to kill not only her, but members of her family.[13]

         Defense counsel also highlighted Quinonez' testimony that, on April 9, 2014, the defendant contacted her for advice about dealing with the threats made to the defendant by the victim. In particular, defense counsel highlighted the fact that Quinonez, who had a close bond with the victim, nevertheless testified that she overheard the victim threaten to kill the defendant. Additionally, there was evidence that the defendant told the police that although Quinonez told the victim that he was not going to harm the defendant ...


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