State v. Ayala

Decision Date24 September 2019
Docket NumberSC 19888
Citation333 Conn. 225,215 A.3d 116
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties STATE of Connecticut v. Vincente AYALA

Christopher Y. Duby, North Haven, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Robert L. O'Brien, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

Linda F. Currie-Zeffiro, assistant state's attorney, with whom were John P. Doyle, Jr., senior assistant state's attorney, and, on the brief, Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

Robinson, C.J., and Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js.

MULLINS, J.

This appeal arises from a judgment of conviction against the defendant, Vincente Ayala, on the charges of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a and conspiracy to commit murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-48 and 53a-54a.1 On appeal, the defendant raises two evidentiary claims.2 First, he claims that the trial court improperly admitted testimony implicating him in the murder under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule. Second, he claims that the trial court improperly admitted certain state of mind evidence. We disagree with both claims and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The record reveals the following facts, which the jury reasonably could have found, and procedural history. The victim, Thomas L. Mozell, Jr., and the defendant were members of Piru, a nationwide street gang affiliated with the Bloods that has a local presence in New Haven. An individual known as "Terror," a gang leader, believed that the victim had disrespected the gang. In particular, Terror and the members of Piru believed that the victim was planning to leave Piru to join a different gang and that he would retaliate against them once he left. As a result, in a meeting that included Terror, Timothy Thomas, the defendant, and several other gang members, Terror ordered Thomas, as the "hood enforcer" of the gang, to kill the victim.3 Thomas refused, however, because he was close friends with the victim. At that point, the defendant volunteered to carry out Terror's order to kill the victim. Later that day, Thomas spoke to the victim and warned him of the threat the gang now posed to his life.

Not long after the meeting, the defendant carried out Terror's order by shooting the victim in the head while he, Terror, and several other gang members were smoking marijuana inside of the victim's vehicle. Thirty minutes after the shooting, the defendant admitted to another gang member, Jordan Richard,4 that he had shot the victim.

The next day, the police found the victim dead in his vehicle with a fatal gunshot wound

to his head. Also on the day following the murder, the defendant told Thomas that he felt badly about what he had to do but that Terror had ordered him to kill the victim.

Following the defendant's arrest and a weeklong trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The trial court rendered judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict and imposed a total effective sentence of 55 years of incarceration. This appeal followed.5 Additional relevant facts will be set forth as necessary.

I

The defendant first claims that the trial court incorrectly admitted certain testimony from Richard under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule. This claim relates specifically to Richard's testimony that, several days after the murder, Terror told him that the defendant had killed the victim at Terror's direction. The defendant contends that this testimony does not fall within the coconspirator exception because there was insufficient evidence that (1) a conspiracy existed between Terror and the defendant at the time Terror made those statements, and (2) Terror made the statements in furtherance of the conspiracy.

The state counters that the trial court properly admitted Richard's testimony pursuant to the coconspirator exception. The state argues that Terror's statements were made during, and in furtherance of, the conspiracy because, notwithstanding the fact that the murder had occurred several days before Terror relayed the details to Richard, the conspiracy still was ongoing. The state further claims that Terror's statements were made in furtherance of the conspiracy because they embroiled Richard deeper into the conspiracy in order to prevent him from going to the police. The state also contends that, even if the trial court improperly admitted Richard's testimony regarding Terror's statements, any error was harmless. We agree with the state's latter contention and, therefore, do not address the substance of the defendant's evidentiary claims regarding the coconspirator exception. Specifically, we conclude that any error in admitting the testimony under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule was harmless.

The following additional facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this claim. Prior to the start of the second day of trial, the defendant filed a motion in limine in anticipation of the state's calling Richard as a witness. The defendant sought to preclude Richard's testimony regarding statements made to Richard by Terror detailing the killing, including how the defendant shot the victim. The trial court heard argument by counsel. Relying on evidence that already had been presented at trial and on the state's representations of Richard's expected testimony, the court determined that the state had established, by a preponderance of the evidence, the requirements for admission under the coconspirator exception. The court, therefore, denied the motion and allowed Richard to testify regarding Terror's statements.

Richard testified as follows at trial. On the evening of the murder, he and other members of Piru were at the house of fellow gang member, Davon Youmans, when he saw Youmans hand Terror a .40 caliber hand-gun. Terror put the gun in his waistband. Shortly thereafter, Terror, the victim, Richard and another gang member, Montese Gilliams, went to smoke marijuana in the victim's vehicle, which was parked just down the street from Youmans' house. Richard testified that they got into the victim's car and that the victim sat in the driver's seat, Gilliams sat in the front passenger seat, Terror sat behind the victim, and Richard sat behind Gilliams. They soon were joined by the defendant at which point Richard moved to the rear middle seat and the defendant sat behind Gilliams on the passenger side of the car. The others then told Richard to get out of the vehicle. Obeying those orders, Richard got out of the vehicle and went back to Youmans' house where he began playing cards. About twenty minutes later, Richard heard a gunshot. He remained inside the house playing cards.

About thirty minutes after Richard heard the gunshot, the defendant came inside Youmans' house wearing different clothes and acting cocky and arrogant. The defendant then told Richard that he had shot the victim. At first, Richard did not believe him, so the defendant told Richard to "go see for yourself." Richard then went back to the victim's vehicle, got inside the vehicle and saw the victim's lifeless body.

Richard also testified that, a couple of days later, Terror asked Richard to accompany him to New York City. He went with Terror and stayed there for five or six days. It was during this time in New York City that Terror made the statement to Richard that is at issue in this appeal. In particular, Terror reportedly said that he, the defendant, and the victim had been inside of the victim's vehicle, he had handed the gun to the defendant, he had looked over at the defendant, and the defendant then shot the victim. The defendant asserts that it was error for the trial court to admit this statement under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule because Terror made the statement days after the murder occurred and the conspiracy had ended. As a result, the defendant argues, the statement could not have been made in furtherance of a conspiracy. The defendant further argues that this evidentiary error was harmful.

We assume, without deciding, that it was improper for the trial court to admit Richard's testimony regarding Terror's statements under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule. Nevertheless, we conclude that the defendant has failed to meet his burden of establishing harm under the circumstances of this case.

"When an improper evidentiary ruling is not constitutional in nature, the defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the error was harmful.... [W]hether [an improper ruling] is harmless in a particular case depends upon a number of factors, such as the importance of the ... testimony in the prosecution's case, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of evidence corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points, the extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted, and, of course, the overall strength of the prosecution's case.... Most importantly, we must examine the impact of the ... evidence on the trier of fact and the result of the trial.... [T]he proper standard for determining whether an erroneous evidentiary ruling is harmless should be whether the jury's verdict was substantially swayed by the error.... Accordingly, a nonconstitutional error is harmless when an appellate court has a fair assurance that the error did not substantially affect the verdict." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Bouknight , 323 Conn. 620, 626–27, 149 A.3d 975 (2016).

As the harmless error standard requires, we must examine the impact that the challenged statements had on the jury and the result of the trial. Our review of the evidence assures us that this evidence did not substantially sway the jury. To be sure, although Richard's testimony was generally important to the state's case, particularly in light of limited physical evidence, the specific statement at issue...

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22 cases
  • State v. Courtney G.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • June 21, 2021
    ...and we will upset that ruling only for a manifest abuse of discretion." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Ayala , 333 Conn. 225, 243–44, 215 A.3d 116 (2019). We need not address whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting N's testimony regarding S's demeanor becaus......
  • State v. James K.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • December 28, 2021
    ...has a fair assurance that the error did not substantially affect the verdict." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Ayala , 333 Conn. 225, 231–32, 215 A.3d 116 (2019).10 See footnote 7 of this opinion.11 The defendant argues that, in the video, Vidro Madigan enhanced the victim's cr......
  • State v. Culbreath
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 18, 2021
    ...statements during its closing and rebuttal arguments indicates that their admission was not harmless. See, e.g., State v. Ayala , 333 Conn. 225, 235, 215 A.3d 116 (2019) ("in evaluating harm [we] look to see how the state used [the inadmissible] evidence in its closing argument"); State v. ......
  • State v. Rhodes
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • March 27, 2020
    ...the absence of this evidence does not require the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence. See, e.g., State v. Ayala , 333 Conn. 225, 236, 215 A.3d 116 (2019) (although physical evidence linking defendant to murder would have made state's case stronger, lack of such evidence did not......
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