State v. Collins

Decision Date02 April 2002
Docket Number(AC 21589)
Citation793 A.2d 1160,68 Conn. App. 828
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesSTATE OF CONNECTICUT v. PATRICK COLLINS

Lavery, C. J., and Landau and Dranginis, JS.

John R. Williams, for the appellant (defendant).

Margaret Gaffney Radionovas, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were John A. Connelly, state's attorney, and Maureen M. Keegan, supervisory assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

Opinion

DRANGINIS, J.

The defendant, Patrick Collins, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a. On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court improperly (1) failed to admit eyewitness testimony of specific acts of abuse perpetrated on the defendant by the victim, and (2) admitted evidence of prior bad acts and bad character of the defendant. We reverse the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts are not in dispute. On January 17, 1998, the defendant, who was sixteen years old at the time, stabbed the victim, his stepfather, to death. The victim had lived with the defendant and the defendant's mother since the defendant was eight. The defendant and the victim did not get along. On the night of the incident, sometime after 11 p.m., the defendant and the victim engaged in an argument about a stereo that the defendant had purchased with his mother's credit card. The two began a fistfight. The defendant stabbed the victim with a pocketknife and a kitchen knife, and ran out the door. He immediately called his uncle from a pay telephone, who told him to call 911. The defendant called the police and informed them that there had been a fight. He stated that he did not know if he had stabbed his victim or what his condition was. When the police arrived, he stated, "I took a swipe at him with my pocketknife."

The victim's body was found on the living room couch.1 An autopsy performed on the victim revealed that he suffered four sharp force injuries, including three to the left chest and one to the right abdomen. A wound to the victim's chest measuring eight and one-half inches deep caused death. A bloodied, eight inch long kitchen knife was found on the kitchen floor. A pocketknife later was found in the pocket of a coat in the defendant's bedroom by his mother.

The jury found the defendant guilty. He was sentenced to a forty year term of imprisonment. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary to resolve the issues on appeal.

I BAD ACTS OF THE VICTIM

The defendant first claims that the court improperly precluded him from offering evidence of specific acts of violence by the victim perpetrated on the defendant, thereby depriving him of his constitutional right to present a defense. He claims that the acts of violence were highly relevant to his claim of self-defense because they tended to show his state of mind at the time of the killing. Specifically, he argues that the court improperly limited the cross-examination of James D'Virgilio, Jr., the son of the victim; the direct examination of Jeremy Smith, a friend of the defendant; Darilee Beliveau, the defendant's girlfriend; and Bobby Collins, the defendant's uncle, regarding whether they ever had witnessed specific acts of abuse perpetrated on the defendant by the victim.2

"The constitutional right to present a defense does not include the right to introduce any and all evidence claimed to support it.... The trial court retains the power to rule on the admissibility of evidence pursuant to traditional evidentiary standards.... The defendant has no right to present evidence that is not admissible according to the rules of evidence...." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Bridges, 65 Conn. App. 517, 524, 782 A.2d 1256, cert. denied, 258 Conn. 934, 785 A.2d 230 (2001).

"Upon review of a trial court's decision, we will set aside an evidentiary ruling only when there has been a clear abuse of discretion.... The trial court has wide discretion in determining the relevancy of evidence and the scope of cross-examination and every reasonable presumption should be made in favor of the correctness of the court's ruling in determining whether there has been an abuse of discretion." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Rolon, 257 Conn. 156, 173, 777 A.2d 604 (2001).

"Furthermore, evidentiary rulings will be overturned on appeal only upon a showing by the defendant of substantial prejudice or injustice.... The burden to prove the harmfulness of an improper evidentiary ruling is borne by the defendant ... who must show that it is more probable than not that the erroneous action of the court affected the result." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Pappas, 256 Conn. 854, 892, 776 A.2d 1091 (2001).

In this case, the defendant argues that evidence of specific prior acts of violence by the victim perpetrated on the defendant was probative of his state of mind and, therefore, relevant to his claim of self-defense. The state, in response, argues that the evidence properly was excluded as specific acts of violence offered to show the victim's character for violence. We agree with the defendant.

"As a matter of hornbook law, evidence of other crimes or bad acts is normally treated as inadmissible character evidence. See, e.g., 1 C. McCormick, Evidence (4th Ed. 1992) § 190." State v. Mozell, 36 Conn. App. 672, 675, 652 A.2d 1060 (1995). "Evidence of character in any form—reputation, opinion from observation, or specific acts—generally will not be received to prove that a person engaged in certain conduct or did so with a particular intent on a specific occasion, so-called circumstantial use of character. The reason is the familiar one of prejudice outweighing probative value. Character evidence used for this purpose, while typically being of relatively slight value, usually is laden with the dangerous baggage of prejudice, distraction, time consumption and surprise." 1 C. McCormick, supra, § 188, p. 793.

The general exception to the rule with respect to the admissibility of character evidence in the context of self-defense claims is well settled. "When a defendant charged with murder asserts that he killed in selfdefense, his state of mind—the existence and reasonableness of apprehension of such violence by the deceased as to justify the defensive measures adopted—becomes material.... In such a case, the defendant may introduce evidence of the victim's violent character to attempt to show that the victim was the aggressor.... Similarly, a defendant may, if he first shows that he was aware of the victim's violent nature, introduce such character evidence to show his own state of mind at the time he confronted the victim, and thereby show the reasonableness of his belief that the use of force was necessary.... A victim's violent character may be proven by reputation or opinion evidence or by evidence showing convictions for crimes of violence.... It may not, however, be proven by evidence of other specific acts.... Except where character is directly in issue, a person's violent character may not be established by evidence of specific acts.... A decedent's violent character may not be established by evidence of specific violent acts, other than convictions, not because it is unconvincing but because it has the potential to surprise, to arouse prejudice, to multiply the issues and confuse the jury, and to prolong the trial." (Citations omitted; emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Carter, 48 Conn. App. 755, 763, 713 A.2d 255, cert. denied, 247 Conn. 901, 719 A.2d 905 (1998).

Equally important is the rule that "evidence is admissible when it tends to establish a fact in issue or to corroborate other direct evidence in the case. One fact is relevant to another fact whenever, according to the common course of events, the existence of the one, taken alone or in connection with other facts, renders the existence of the other either certain or more probable. Unless excluded by some rule or principle of law, any fact may be proved which logically tends to aid the trier in the determination of the issue." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Cansler, 54 Conn. App. 819, 832, 738 A.2d 1095 (1999).

"Evidence is not rendered inadmissible because it is not conclusive. All that is required is that evidence tend to support a relevant fact even to a slight degree, so long as it is not prejudicial or merely cumulative. C. Tait & J. LaPlante, Connecticut Evidence (2d Ed. 1988) § 8.1.1, p. 226." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Wagner v. Clark Equipment Co., 243 Conn. 168, 196, 700 A.2d 38 (1997).

We have articulated the requirements of self-defense as follows. "A person may justifiably use deadly physical force in self-defense pursuant to General Statutes § 53a-19 (a) 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.... We repeatedly have indicated that the test a jury must apply in analyzing the second requirement, i.e., that the defendant reasonably believed that deadly force, as opposed to some lesser degree of force, was necessary to repel the victim's alleged attack, is a subjective-objective one....

"The subjective-objective inquiry into the defendant's belief regarding the necessary degree of force requires that the jury make two separate affirmative determinations in order for the defendant's claim of self-defense to succeed. First, the jury must determine whether, on the basis of all of the evidence presented, the defendant in fact had believed that he had needed to use deadly physical force, as opposed to some lesser degree of force, in order to repel the victim's...

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