State v. Ellis

Decision Date10 September 1985
Citation497 A.2d 974,197 Conn. 436
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Brian ELLIS. STATE of Connecticut v. Wilmer PARADISE, Jr. STATE of Connecticut v. David WORTHINGTON.

Amy J. Horowitz, West Hartford, with whom, on brief, was Gerald M. Klein, Hartford, for appellee (defendant Brian Ellis).

Richard R. Brown, Hartford, for appellee (defendant Wilmer Paradise, Jr.).

Douglas S. Ebenstein, West Hartford, with whom were Mark Lever, Legal Intern, and, on brief, Michael W. Levy, West Hartford, for appellant (defendant David Worthington).

John M. Massameno, Asst. State's Atty., with whom were Donald O'Brien, Special Asst. State's Atty., and, on brief, Austin J. McGuigan, Chief State's Atty., John M. Bailey, State's Atty., Edward Spinella, Former Asst. State's Atty., Linda N. Knight, Deputy Asst. State's Atty., Katherine Lambert, Former Deputy Asst. State's Atty., and A. Jeffrey Somers, Legal Intern, for appellant-appellee (State).


DANNEHY, Justice.

This appeal and reserved question present two primary issues: (1) whether the statute of limitations in effect when these offenses occurred imposes a five year limitation on the prosecution of capital felonies, and (2) whether the state must join in a single prosecution all discrete statutory offenses arising from a single criminal transaction.

In May, 1974, the badly decomposed body of seventeen year old Jay Cunningham was found in a heavily wooded area of Enfield. The chief medical examiner classified Cunningham's death as a homicide resulting from multiple stab wounds. More than seven years later, in December, 1981, Wilmer Paradise and Brian Ellis were arrested and charged with murder, General Statutes § 53a-54a, felony murder, General Statutes § 53a-54c, and kidnapping, General Statutes § 53a-92(a)(2), in connection with Cunningham's death. One month after their arrest, the defendants moved to dismiss the pending charges, claiming that prosecution was barred by General Statutes (Rev. to 1975) § 54-193, 1 which imposed a five year limitation on the prosecution of any crime of which the punishment "is or may be imprisonment in the Connecticut Correctional Institution, Somers." On March 29, 1982, the trial court, B. O'Neill, J., granted the motions and the state appealed. We found no error. State v. Paradise, 189 Conn. 346, 456 A.2d 305 (1983) (Paradise I).

After our decision in Paradise I the state, on April 11, 1983, rearrested Paradise and Ellis on charges of capital felony. General Statutes § 53a-54b(5). 2 Along with them a third defendant, David Worthington, was arrested and charged in connection with the same offense. All three defendants filed motions to dismiss, the hearing of which was postponed pending the action of the grand jury. On June 2, 1983, separate indictments were returned charging each defendant in two counts as principal and accessory to the crime of capital felony. General Statutes §§ 53a-54b(5) and 53a-8. A hearing was then held on the motions to dismiss. Paradise and Ellis claimed, inter alia, that prosecution was barred under principles of res judicata. The trial court, Borden, J., agreed and dismissed the indictments. The state, with leave of the court, appealed. General Statutes § 54-96.

Worthington was not arrested until after our decision in Paradise I, and thus did not rely on res judicata in his motion to dismiss. Rather, Worthington argued that General Statutes (Rev. to 1975) § 54-193 bars prosecution for capital felony unless commenced within five years from the date of the offense. The trial court, Borden, J., denied the motion. Because the denial of a motion to dismiss is not a final judgment; see State v. Curcio, 191 Conn. 27, 30-31, 463 A.2d 566 (1983); Worthington's claim was reserved for our advice in accordance with Practice Book § 3133. 3 Paradise makes the identical claim as an alternative ground upon which the judgment dismissing the indictment against him may be affirmed. Practice Book § 3012(a). We turn to the question reserved first.


The defendants are charged with capital felony, a crime which under our law is punishable either by death or imprisonment, as determined in postconviction proceedings held in accordance with General Statutes § 53a-46a. Because the offense with which they are charged occurred more than five years before the date of their arrest, the defendants claim that their prosecutions are barred by the applicable statute of limitations. That statute provided, in pertinent part: "No person shall be prosecuted ... for any crime or misdemeanor of which the punishment is or may be imprisonment in the Connecticut Correctional Institution, Somers, except within five years next after the offense has been committed; nor shall any person be prosecuted for the violation of any penal law, or for other crime or misdemeanor, except crimes punishable by death or imprisonment in the Connecticut Correctional Institution, Somers, but within one year next after the offense has been committed...." General Statutes (Rev. to 1975) § 54-193.

The defendants claim that the first clause of this statute, imposing a five year limitation on the prosecution of any crime "of which the punishment is or may be imprisonment" in Somers, includes the crime of capital felony. They base this argument on the fact that capital felony "may be" punished by imprisonment in Somers if the death penalty is not imposed. The state argues that while capital felony may be punished by imprisonment, it may also be punished by death. Since the statute does not by its terms limit the prosecution of crimes which may be punished by death, the state contends that it does not apply to the crime of capital felony. Thus, the issue is whether capital felony, for purposes of classification within the statute of limitations, is a crime punishable by death, to which the statute does not apply, or a crime punishable by imprisonment, and thereby subject to the five year limitation period of the statute's first clause.

The statute of limitations presently before us traces its origin to the statute of 1821. General Statutes (Rev. to 1821), tit. 59, § 11. 4 Then, as now, crimes were classified according to their punishments. While the punishment of crime and the criminal law itself have changed significantly since 1821, the language and structure of our limitations statute remains substantially the same. The statute remained workable in its original form because, until recently, that form was literally consistent with the punishment schemes upon which it is made to depend. In 1951, however, the legislature ameliorated the punishment for first degree murder. Public Acts 1951, No. 369. Prior to that time, conviction for first degree murder carried a mandatory sentence of death. General Statutes (Rev. to 1949) § 8351. The 1951 act empowered the jury to recommend upon conviction that the defendant receive a nonpardonable sentence of life imprisonment. State v. Walters, 145 Conn. 60, 71, 138 A.2d 786, cert. denied, 358 U.S. 46, 79 S.Ct. 70, 3 L.Ed.2d 45 (1958). Thus, for the first time, the legislature prescribed a punishment which was not literally classifiable under our statute of limitations.

The defendants' initial claim is that we may not construe this statute at all. They assert that the statutory language is plain and unambiguous, and not open to interpretation beyond the literal meaning of the words used. Doe v. Manson, 183 Conn. 183, 186, 438 A.2d 859 (1981). According to the defendants, the first clause of the statute creates a five year bar to prosecution of all crimes potentially punishable by imprisonment in Somers. This description would include all felonies, including capital felony. The second clause is claimed to include all crimes except those included in the first, and "those punishable only by death." (Emphasis added.) The defendants recognize that unless the phrase "crimes punishable by death" is construed to mean "crimes punishable only by death," the phrase becomes surplusage in the statute. This is because under our law, the phrase "crimes punishable by imprisonment" necessarily includes all crimes punishable by death. We note, however, that our present penal code contains no crimes punishable only by death, nor has it since 1951. 5

The early common law did not limit felony prosecutions of any kind; 1 Wharton, Criminal Law (14th Ed. Torcia) § 19; Bishop, Statutory Crimes (3d Ed. 1901) § 257; and Connecticut's earliest statutes of limitation expressly excluded from their operation prosecutions for capital and most other felonies. Laws of Connecticut Colony (Rev. to 1672) p. 34; General Statutes (Rev. to 1808), tit. 101, c. 1, §§ 1, 2. 6 The comments to the predecessor of our present statute of limitations indicate that it, too, was intended to exclude capital prosecutions. General Statutes (Rev. to 1821), tit. 59, § 11, p. 312 n. 2. 7 Since " '[n]o statute is to be construed as altering the common law, farther than its words import' "; Dennis v. Shaw, 137 Conn. 450, 452, 78 A.2d 691 (1951); the failure specifically to limit prosecutions of crimes punishable by death leads the state to conclude that the statute does not apply to prosecution of capital felony.

This court does not interpret statutes in a vacuum, nor does it refuse to consider matters of known historical fact. When aid to the meaning of a statute is available, "there certainly can be no 'rule of law' which forbids its use, however clear the words may appear on 'superficial examination.' " (Footnotes omitted.) Train v. Colorado Public Interest Research Group, 426 U.S. 1, 10, 96 S.Ct. 1938, 1942, 48 L.Ed.2d 434 (1976), quoting United States v. American Trucking Assn., 310 U.S. 534, 543-44, 60 S.Ct. 1059, 1063-64, 84 L.Ed.2d 1345 (1940). The purpose of statutory construction is to ascertain the intent of the...

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    ... ... The defendant had asserted that we did not have the authority to adopt such a definition, citing State v. Ellis, 197 Conn. 436, 455-56, 497 A.2d 974 (1985), on appeal after remand sub nom. State v. Paradise, 213 Conn. 388, 567 A.2d 1221 (1990), for the proposition 264 Conn. 413 that "the power to define crimes and to designate the penalties therefor resides in the legislature." Breton I, supra, 268 ... ...
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    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 84, 2010
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