SC Year In Review: Murder Cases Show Rule Of Law Is Alive And Well
The Connecticut Supreme Court heard 42 criminal law cases during the 2012-2013 term and has released decisions in 27 of those cases. Here are the highlights.
Murder prosecutions can present the ultimate test in balancing constitutional rights with the quest for justice. The stakes are high, the facts are intense, and the trials are emotional. Appellate review in criminal cases provides a safeguard to ensure that if and when lines are crossed, the right to fair trial either remains unimpeded or a new one is awarded. Three decisions in murder cases from the past term demonstrate the proper application of the rule of law in defining the bounds of zealous advocacy and constitutional rights even in the most difficult of circumstances.
The first case is State v. Adams. 309 Conn. 459 (2013). Shelton Adams was convicted of murder and other offenses arising from a gang-related attack on the deceased and shooting two other victims in a public housing project. He and three coverts were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 75 to 100 years. Through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Adams claimed that the prosecutor in his case failed to correct false and misleading testimony of one of its key witnesses. Specifically, a state's witness had entered a guilty plea with an agreed-upon sentence cap contingent on his testimony. However, on the stand, he flatly denied any offers of consideration and said that he was testifying out of a desire for justice.
The Supreme Court held that false testimony from the witness stating he was not promised any consideration on charges pending against him in exchange for his testimony violated Brady v. Maryland because the prosecutor failed to correct testimony that he knew or should have known was false. Accordingly, Adams was granted a new trial. (When the case returned to the trial court, the State's Attorney extended the benefit of Adams' decision to the other three men. Their charges were dismissed after it was represented that they would not be retried given the lapse of time and unavailability of witnesses, including the key witness who was now dead.)
In State v. Wilson, 308 Conn. 412 (2013), the defendant was convicted of a murder committed during a holiday party on Christmas evening, 2007. The gun in this case was not recovered. At trial, the defendant tried to show that he could not have been the shooter because he was standing too far from the victim at the time that the fatal bullet was fired. To support his theory, he presented an expert witness who testified regarding the approximate distance of the muzzle of the murder weapon from the victim's chest at the time of the fatal shot based on the gunshot residue evidence. The prosecutor denigrated the defendant's expert with "excessive and unnecessary use of sarcasm."
The Supreme Court concluded that the prosecutor's cross-examination of the defendant's expert witness and comments made during closing argument did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial. However, the Court did issue a rebuke of the prosecutor's conduct. It first noted that the prosecutor repeatedly offered his sarcastic congratulations to the defendant's witness, belittled the nature of his work experience, engaged in name-calling, sarcastically compared the witness to a fourth-grader, and declared to the jury that the defense witness' testimony "wasted an hour of our lives." The Court made clear that, although the defendant's murder conviction was not tainted by a deprivation of due process, it did not approve of the prosecutor's conduct, stating that while "the prosecutor's persistent, strident and improper denigration of [the defense witness' testimony] did not ultimately deprive the defendant of a fair trial, it far exceeded the 'generous latitude in argument'… entrusted to those who represent the people of the state, and was beneath the dignity of the prosecutor's high public office."
State v. Custodio, 307 Conn. 548 (2012) presented an "ends justifies the means" mentality on the part of the trial prosecutor and the trial judge. The defendant was charged with murder in 1991. The court concluded that he was incompetent to stand trial and committed him to the custody of the state Department of Mental Health. Months later in 1992, the defendant was released from the hospital and lived at various residences for approximately 18 years.
In July 2010, the clerk's office brought the defendant's still-open murder file to the attention of the court. The trial court ordered a hearing to be held on July 26, 2010 and, since the defendant was never provided notice, he did not appear. At the hearing, the prosecutor explained that, to her "horror," she had just learned that the defendant had been free for the past 18 years and suggested that the defendant should have contacted the state's attorney's office about his pending murder charge after his release from the hospital in 1992. The prosecutor requested that a failure to appear warrant issue. The trial court granted the state's request, despite conceding that there was no basis for a failure to appear charge. The court reasoned that the charge was a way to get the defendant before the court and that the failure to appear charge would ultimately be dismissed.
The defendant was arrested that day for failing to appear for the hearing that he never knew about. At his arraignment, the trial court dismissed the failure to appear charge, set bond on the murder charge, and scheduled a competency hearing. At that hearing, the court concluded that the defendant remained incompetent and committed him back into the custody of the Department of Mental Health commissioner and ordered that he be subject to periodic competency evaluations based on a retroactive application of General Statutes Section 54-56d(m).
On appeal, the Appellate Court noted that the manner in which the state and the court brought the defendant back into the judicial system was misguided. However, because the initial murder prosecution remained open, the impropriety in pursing the failure to appear warrant was harmless. The Supreme Court affirmed and expressly concluded that the trial court's order of periodic competency review was appropriate.