734 A.2d 508 (R.I. 1999), 97-327, Powers v. State

Docket Nº:97-327-C.A.
Citation:734 A.2d 508
Opinion Judge:GOLDBERG, Justice.
Party Name:James J. POWERS v. STATE of Rhode Island.
Attorney:Marie T. Roebuck, Providence, for plaintiff., Aaron L. Weisman, Providence, for defendant., Present WEISBERGER, C.J., and LEDERBERG, FLANDERS, and GOLDBERG, JJ. Marie T. Roebuck, Providence, for plaintiff. Aaron L. Weisman, Providence, for defendant.
Case Date:July 16, 1999
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island

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734 A.2d 508 (R.I. 1999)



STATE of Rhode Island.

No. 97-327-C.A.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

July 16, 1999.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Marie T. Roebuck, Providence, for plaintiff.

Aaron L. Weisman, Providence, for defendant.



GOLDBERG, Justice.

A cold-blooded execution-style murder of a seventeen-year-old boy brings James J. Powers (Powers) before this Court for a fourth time. On this occasion, Powers appeals the denial of his application for post-conviction relief and asserts a veritable legal smorgasbord of errors. After examining the voluminous record, which spans nearly twenty years, we reject all claims.


Factual Background

In mid-June 1981, approximately two or three weeks before the murder, and while in the State of California, the events preceding this senseless slaying began to unfold when Powers and a friend, Colleen McCabe (McCabe), discussed returning to Rhode Island. Although McCabe's reasons for returning to Rhode Island were not apparent, Powers clearly had his own sinister agenda. According to McCabe, the stated purpose of Powers' trip back to Rhode Island was "to get a gun," "do a score and then go back to California." In accordance with his plan, Powers, McCabe, and her daughter returned to Rhode Island and, as promised, Powers set out to obtain a firearm.

The trial testimony revealed that in late June 1981, Powers contacted his friend, Peter D'Ambra (D'Ambra), to see whether D'Ambra "could get him a gun." Thereafter, D'Ambra consulted a friend, Richard Steinkamp (Steinkamp), regarding Powers' request, and in turn, Steinkamp contacted Kurt Deines (Deines), a gunsmith. On July 2, 1981, Deines loaned Steinkamp a .22 caliber weapon (serial number 649747) with a slender Sport King barrel. 1

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Powers spent much of the next day, July 3, 1981, at the beach located within Goddard Park. At approximately 4:30 p.m., Powers, D'Ambra, and two women left the beach and eventually stopped at a Providence apartment where Powers changed from his swimwear into dark clothes and long pants. 2 Several errands later, Powers and D'Ambra proceeded toward Steinkamp's home, but D'Ambra left Powers at a nearby store in order to proceed to Steinkamp's alone so that Steinkamp would believe that the gun was intended for D'Ambra's own personal use. Subsequently, D'Ambra obtained the .22 caliber weapon (serial number 649747) with a slender Sport King barrel from Steinkamp. D'Ambra then picked up Powers from the store and transferred the .22 caliber weapon to him. At approximately 8 p.m., D'Ambra left Powers on Oakland Beach Avenue and by Powers' own admission, no one can account for his whereabouts for the next two hours.

The trial testimony revealed that at approximately 10 p.m., Adam Mowry (Mowry) and his then-girlfriend Pauline Krueger (Krueger), were sitting in front of the Lutheran Church on Warwick Avenue to view the evening's fireworks. Across the street from the Lutheran Church was the E-Mart gas station, which was staffed by a lone night attendant. Krueger testified that at approximately 10 p.m., she observed an individual, later determined to be Powers, crouching in the bushes adjacent to the gas station, wearing a blue jean jacket, blue jeans, and a nylon stocking over his head,. Krueger alerted Mowry, who attempted to warn the night attendant of the impending danger. Mowry's good intentions, however, were no match for Powers' coldly-calculated plan, and as Mowry crossed Warwick Avenue, Powers ran into the gas station, grabbed the young attendant, and stuck what appeared to be a gun into his stomach. Mowry turned his attention to alerting the police of the crime in progress and ran to an ice cream parlor adjacent to the gas station. Unfortunately, the parlor was not equipped with a telephone. As Mowry ran back around the side of the gas station, he observed Powers fleeing from the scene, and soon thereafter, he discovered the night attendant lying on the gas station's floor in a pool of blood.

The gas station attendant, who had just turned seventeen, was later identified as Robert Craig Caldwell (Caldwell). Caldwell had been working at the E-Mart gas station for only two or three weeks while on summer vacation following the completion of his first year of college at the University of Rhode Island. The evidence indicated that Powers herded Caldwell into the gas station's office, and shot him at close range, in the back of the neck with a .22 caliber gun. Caldwell was later pronounced dead at Kent County Memorial Hospital.

In addition to Mowry's and Krueger's corroborating testimony, the 1982 trial record also contained the testimony of D'Ambra's mother, Antonetta D'Ambra (Antonetta). Antonetta testified that shortly after 10 p.m. on the evening of July 3, 1981, Powers appeared unexpectedly at her home, located a short distance

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from the E-Mart. 3 Antonetta was surprised by Powers' unannounced visit and observed Powers wearing dark clothes and walking with a limp. After hearing an increasing number of police sirens nearby, Antonetta asked Powers whether he was in trouble with the police; an accusation that Powers denied. Instead, Powers falsely claimed that he had made prior arrangements to meet D'Ambra at his mother's home. D'Ambra soon arrived at his mother's house after receiving a telephone call alerting him to the fact that Powers was presently at this location and was waiting for him to arrive. Thereafter, D'Ambra picked-up Powers and drove him back to his apartment.

Meanwhile, as the events at Antonetta's home developed, Steinkamp, the individual who had loaned the .22 caliber gun to D'Ambra, learned of the E-Mart shooting. Fearing that the loaned weapon may have been utilized during the shooting, Steinkamp repeatedly attempted to telephone D'Ambra. After receiving several busy signals, Steinkamp drove to D'Ambra's apartment where he learned that D'Ambra was not at home, but would return shortly. Steinkamp waited outside, and when D'Ambra and Powers did return, all three entered the apartment.

Once inside D'Ambra's apartment, Steinkamp demanded the return of the .22 caliber pistol. Noticing how frantic and upset Steinkamp appeared, D'Ambra assured him that the loaned gun was upstairs, inside the apartment. Thereafter, D'Ambra proceeded upstairs in order to ask Powers about the location of the weapon. D'Ambra then retrieved the weapon from the master bedroom and returned it to Steinkamp. Steinkamp, in turn, left D'Ambra's apartment for Deines' house, in order to return the gun.

Later that evening, back at D'Ambra's apartment, D'Ambra informed Powers that Deines would know if the gun had been fired. Faced with this possibility, Powers admitted to D'Ambra that he had robbed the E-Mart gas station and shot the young attendant.

Several weeks later, in mid-July 1981, Powers returned to California, and while there, informed his friend, Gary LeMay (LeMay), that he had been stopped and questioned about a murder while in Rhode Island. This statement prompted LeMay to inquire, "well did you do it," to which Powers boasted "[Y]es, I killed the fuckin' kid." According to LeMay, Powers detailed "that he went * * * to hold the gas station up[;] * * * that he was hiding in the woods behind the building[;] * * * [that] he came around the front, went in and stuck the guy up [;] got the money from the guy[;] * * * [and that because] he thought that the guy noticed his face, [and] his mask, he turned him around and he shot him." LeMay's testimony also corroborated Mowry's and Krueger's earlier testimony that Powers wore a nylon stocking over his head, used a .22 caliber handgun, and fled "the gas station, went through the woods and went over to [Antonetta's] house."

Predictably, Powers' version of these events were markedly different. Despite his history of being a self-professed professional thief, as well as a self-professed gunman, and his admission that he was looking to obtain a gun in early July in order to "make some money," Powers denied any involvement in the E-Mart shooting. Instead, Powers accused his friend D'Ambra of the murder, and claimed that it was he (Powers) who attempted to locate a gun for D'Ambra, and that at D'Ambra's insistence, he (Powers) obtained .22 caliber bullets from a friend, Raymond Ross (Ross). In addition, Powers maintained that he and D'Ambra had made prior arrangements to meet at Antonetta's house at approximately 10 p.m., that five unknown individuals assaulted him at a Del's Lemonade stand just prior to 10 p.m., and

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that he had helped D'Ambra destroy evidence "that could tie him in this crime." 4

Following a jury trial, at Kent County Superior Court, Powers was found guilty of both felony-murder and robbery, and after denying Powers' motion for a new trial, the trial justice sentenced Powers to life in prison on the felony-murder conviction.

On appeal, we affirmed the felony-murder conviction, but agreed with the trial justice that the conviction on the companion robbery count merged into the conviction for murder and that Powers could not be convicted of both. State v. Powers, 526 A.2d 489 (R.I.1987) (vacating robbery conviction, but remanding the case to the trial justice for a determination of whether incriminating statements were deliberately withheld). However, in 1992, over ten years after Powers' apprehension for the murder of Caldwell, the state prosecuted Powers on count seven of the indictment, an unrelated gun charge that had been severed by the trial justice despite Powers' vigorous objection on the grounds of lack of a speedy trial. This Court was subsequently compelled to vacate Powers' conviction...

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