State v. Galarza

Decision Date12 September 2006
Docket NumberNo. 26646.,26646.
Citation906 A.2d 685,97 Conn.App. 444
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Luis GALARZA.

Anna-Liisa Joseloff, pro hac vice, with whom were Mark Rademacher, assistant public defender, and Carmine Perri, for the appellant (defendant).

C. Robert Satti, Jr., senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, was Jonathan C. Benedict, state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

SCHALLER, FLYNN and STOUGHTON, Js.1

FLYNN, J.

A jury found the defendant, Luis Galarza, guilty of two counts of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a (a) and one count of capital felony in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54b (8).2 The trial court merged the two counts of murder into the count of capital felony and sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The defendant appealed to our Supreme Court, which transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199(c).

On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court denied him the constitutional right (1) to confront witnesses against him by admitting into evidence a statement made by one of the victims hours before he was murdered and (2) to present a defense and the right to the effective assistance of counsel by limiting counsel's (a) cross-examination of certain witnesses and (b) final argument and that (3) the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing argument. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

This case concerns the murders of half-brothers Magdiel Rivera, Jr., and Luis Velez. The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. On the afternoon of October 14, 1999, Maggie Montes and her husband, Edwin Bonilla, were at the Trumbull Mall and encountered the victims, individuals with whom they were acquainted. Montes testified that everyone was happy. Rivera received a page, however, and then made a telephone call. As a result of the telephone call, Rivera's expression changed. He left the mall alone between 4 and 5 p.m. Montes and Bonilla remained at the mall and later returned with Velez to their home in Bridgeport, where Rivera joined them. The four individuals got into Rivera's brown-colored van and drove about Bridgeport. While they were in the van, Rivera received another page and drove to a bar called the Latin Spirit Club. In Montes' opinion, Rivera was not acting like himself.

Montes had never been to the Latin Spirit Club before and described it as being a place in which she was uncomfortable. Most of the patrons were men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, wearing hooded sweatshirts and army fatigue pants with firearms clipped to them. Montes was nervous because everyone looked suspicious and was whispering and looking over their shoulders. Montes stood by the bar and watched Rivera walk to the back of the room. The door to the restroom was ajar, and Montes could see a figure standing at the door. The door was opened for Rivera to enter and closed behind him. Rivera remained in the restroom for ten to fifteen minutes. When he exited, Rivera told Montes, Bonilla and Velez to leave the Latin Spirit Club immediately. Montes described Rivera as looking shocked. Bonilla walked beside Rivera as they proceeded to the van. Rivera and his companions returned to Montes' home, where they sat in the van talking. The substance of their conversation concerned what Rivera had heard in the restroom, an alleged plot to take his life. See part I. Montes told Rivera three or four times not to go where he had stated he intended to go. Montes and Bonilla entered their apartment shortly after midnight, leaving the victims in the van.

At approximately 12:30 a.m. on October 15, 1999, the victims arrived at 116 Corn Tassel Road, Bridgeport, a private home, and parked the van on the street in front of the house. At the time, the victims were in possession of a large quantity of cocaine in powder form, which they intended to process into crack cocaine with the assistance of someone in the house. The approximate value of the cocaine was $40,000 to $50,000. About an hour after the victims entered the residence, they left with the crack cocaine. Very soon thereafter, the residents heard gunshots coming from the street and telephoned the police. Others in the neighborhood also telephoned the police about hearing gunshots.

Benjamin Mauro, a patrol officer, was dispatched to the residence at about 2 a.m. He found the victims, shot multiple times, inside the van. The window of the passenger door had been shot out. Rivera's body was in the operator's seat with the keys in his hand. Velez' body was on the floor between the front seats. Although no murder weapon was recovered, ten spent nine millimeter shell casings and thirteen bullets and bullet fragments were found at the scene.3 Ballistics tests revealed that the bullets were all fired from the same gun. A forensic medical examination of the victims' wounds demonstrated that gunshots had been fired through the window of the passenger's side of the van. The injuries caused by bullets on Velez' body revealed that he had turned away from the window when the gunshots were fired. The police recovered no drugs or guns at the scene.

No one witnessed the murders. The defendant, however, was arrested for the crimes on November 15, 2001, on the basis of statements made by numerous individuals acquainted with both the defendant and the victims. The state prosecuted the defendant on the theory that he had murdered the victims as the result of an escalating dispute between him and Rivera as to the distribution of illegal narcotics in a particular area of Bridgeport.4 The defendant's theory was that others were responsible for the deaths of the victims. The jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of murder and one count of capital felony.

I

The defendant's first claim is that the court denied him his state5 and federal constitutional rights to confront witnesses against him by admitting into evidence a statement Rivera had made several hours before he was killed. Assuming without deciding that the defendant was denied the right to cross-examine the witness, we conclude, nonetheless, that the admission of the statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because there was sufficient other circumstantial evidence from which the jury reasonably could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was responsible for the death of the victims.

The following facts are relevant to this claim. At trial, Bonilla testified as to what Rivera had told him after they left the Latin Spirit Club:6 "We got in the van and sat down, and I asked him, `Why you look like that? Why you upset?' He said, `Because I just found out that somebody just paid to kill me.' And I said, `Who? What you talking about?' And he said, `[The defendant] just paid a guy I seen in the bathroom.' I said, `Who is that?' I wanted to know who was in the bathroom. And he said, `[Jose Arciniega]. He paid him. He was my friend. And he said that . . .'"7 At the conclusion of Bonilla's testimony,8 the court gave a limiting instruction, telling the jury that Rivera's statement was not admitted for the truth of the matter.

The defendant contends that the admission of Rivera's statement into evidence deprived him of the right to confront the witnesses against him. A conclusion that a defendant's constitutional rights were violated by the admission of an out-of court statement is subject to harmless error analysis, which will result in a new trial only if the evidence admitted was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Peeler, 271 Conn. 338, 399, 857 A.2d 808 (2004), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 94, 163 L.Ed.2d 110 (2005). The state bears the burden of proving that the evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Carpenter, 275 Conn. 785, 832, 882 A.2d 604 (2005), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 1578, 164 L.Ed.2d 309 (2006). We conclude, on the basis of our review of the entire trial transcript including the court's limiting instruction to the jury, that the admission of the evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Whether a constitutional violation is harmless in a particular case depends upon the totality of the evidence presented at trial . . . . If the evidence may have had a tendency to influence the judgment of the jury, it cannot be considered harmless." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. "Whether such error is harmless in a particular case depends upon a number of factors, such as the importance of the witness' 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." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Colton, 227 Conn. 231, 254, 630 A.2d 577 (1993), on appeal after remand, 234 Conn. 683, 663 A.2d 339 (1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1140, 116 S.Ct. 972, 133 L.Ed.2d 892 (1996).

The fact that the jury found the defendant guilty weighs heavily in our decision because the jury decided the credibility of the witnesses. The jury had to decide which version of a witness' testimony was credible, that which was presented by the state or that which was revealed during rigorous cross-examination by defense counsel. There were no eyewitnesses to the crimes, and the issue at trial was the identity of the perpetrator.

Beyond the photographs depicting the physical evidence of the crime scene, the autopsy and ballistics reports, the state's case was one of circumstantial evidence adduced from witnesses familiar with both the...

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  • State v. Luna
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • September 28, 2021
    ...relevant, its exclusion is proper and the defendant's right is not violated." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Galarza , 97 Conn. App. 444, 464, 906 A.2d 685, cert. denied, 280 Conn. 936, 909 A.2d 962 (2006) ; see also State v. Cerreta , 260 Conn. 251, 261, 796 A.2d 1176 (2002) ......
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  • Developments in Connecticut Criminal Law: 2006
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 81, 2007
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