State v. Graham

Decision Date04 October 2022
Docket NumberSC 20447
Citation344 Conn. 825,282 A.3d 435
Parties STATE of Connecticut v. James GRAHAM
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Alice Osedach, assistant public defender, for the appellant (defendant).

Timothy F. Costello, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Patrick J. Griffin, former state's attorney, Seth R. Garbarsky, senior assistant state's attorney, and Andrew Reed Durham, former assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

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

McDONALD, J.

The defendant, James Graham, appeals from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of one count each of felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery in the first degree, and carrying a pistol without a permit. On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) the trial court erred in admitting the statement of an accomplice that inculpated the defendant, in violation of § 8-6 (4) of the Connecticut Code of Evidence and the defendant's sixth amendment right to confrontation, (2) the prosecutor committed impropriety by presenting a generic tailoring argument during closing argument, which violated the defendant's confrontation rights under our state constitution, and (3) the prosecutor committed impropriety by eliciting certain information contained in two witnesses’ cooperation agreements and by presenting closing argument related to those materials. We affirm the judgment of conviction.

The jury reasonably could have found the following relevant facts. In 2017, the defendant and two of his friends, Robert Moye and Brennan Coleman, walked from the defendant's home in New Haven to the area where the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (Canal Line Trail), a walking and bike path, intersects with Dudley Street in Hamden. Along the way, they observed Donavan Lowndes—a friend of Coleman's—driving along Dudley Street. Coleman flagged Lowndes down, and the three men approached Lowndes’ vehicle, where they talked briefly. During their conversation, Coleman pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and showed it to Lowndes.

Moments later, the defendant, Moye, and Coleman observed the victim, Leandre Benton, walking along the Canal Line Trail. The defendant and his friends were members of "Read Street" and "Starr Block," allied groups in New Haven. The victim, however, was a member of "SLB," a rival group in Hamden. When they saw the victim, Coleman suggested, "let's go stain him," meaning they should rob him. They approached the victim and asked him whether he was "SLB." In response, the victim punched Coleman in the face. Coleman took out his gun to shoot the victim, but the gun jammed. The defendant then pulled out his .380 caliber pistol and fatally shot the victim. Following the shooting, the three men took money and a cell phone from the victim. They also took some of the victim's clothing and then fled the scene on foot.

Thereafter, Moye messaged his friend, Steven Capers, and asked him to pick him up in Hamden. Capers agreed. Shortly after Capers arrived, the defendant, Moye, and Coleman emerged from a backyard, running away from the direction of Dudley Street. They rushed into the back seat of Capers’ car, leaving the doors open, and told Capers to "go." They appeared "out of breath," "nervous," and smelled like gunpowder. Capers sensed that "something was going on," and, having noticed that there was increased police activity in the area, he told the three men to get out of his car. The three exited the car and ran southbound. Moye then messaged Shyquan Bellamy, who picked up the defendant, Moye, and Coleman in New Haven and drove them to a location in Waterbury.

Later that same evening, Moye initiated a FaceTime call with Donald Harris, who was in the car with Capers. The defendant, Moye, and Coleman were all visible on the screen. They informed Harris and Capers that they were staying in Waterbury. During the call, the defendant, Moye, and Coleman were "flashing guns." Moye displayed a .38 caliber revolver, Coleman displayed a nine millimeter semiautomatic pistol, and the defendant displayed a .380 caliber pistol.

Approximately one week later, while the defendant was at the home of his friend, Jalen Bacote, Bacote mentioned that he had seen a post on Facebook about the victim's death. The defendant went on to recount the details of the incident, including that he shot the victim and that he, Moye, and Coleman then took money, a cell phone, and some clothes from the victim. Around the same time, Capers visited Moye. While they were smoking marijuana, in Moye's backyard, with Harris, Moye asked Capers to swear that he would not tell anyone what he was about to say. Capers agreed, and Moye proceeded to divulge certain details about the murder.

The state charged the defendant with one count each of felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery in the first degree, and carrying a pistol without a permit. At trial, the state called, among other witnesses, Capers and Bacote, who, pursuant to their cooperation agreements with the state, testified regarding the aforementioned conversations they had with Moye and the defendant, respectively. The defendant also testified in his own defense. Although the defendant admitted that he was at the scene of the murder, along with Moye and Coleman, he denied any involvement. According to the defendant, he, Moye, and Coleman walked to Dudley Street because Coleman was planning to meet someone there. Because that person never arrived, they began walking back toward the defendant's house and encountered the victim. The defendant explained that the victim called them over and asked for marijuana bags, which Coleman happened to be carrying. The defendant testified that, while Coleman and the victim began to engage in a drug transaction, someone wearing a black hooded sweat suit and a face covering came up from behind and aimed a gun at them. The defendant claimed that he yelled out and began running back toward Dudley Street. Moye and Coleman followed. He also said that he heard gun shots. The defendant claimed that, after the shooting, he, Moye, and Coleman went back to the defendant's house and then went to Waterbury to get guns. He confirmed that Bellamy gave them a ride to Waterbury but denied ever having encountered Capers that day or having entered his car. The defendant also denied that any of them were carrying guns at the time of the shooting and contended that the first time he saw anyone with a gun was when they obtained the guns in Waterbury. He also acknowledged that he, Moye, and Coleman approached Lowndes’ car before they encountered the victim but claimed that Coleman had showed Lowndes a cell phone, not a gun.

Ultimately, at the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. The court sentenced the defendant to a total effective sentence of fifty-two years of incarceration. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

I
A

We begin with the defendant's challenge to the trial court's admission of Capers’ testimony regarding Moye's statement to him about the murder. The following additional facts are relevant to our analysis. At trial, the prosecutor called Capers to testify. During Capers’ direct examination, the prosecutor alerted the court that he anticipated that defense counsel would object to questions he intended to ask regarding a "dual inculpatory statement" that Moye had made to Capers after the murder. The prosecutor conducted a proffer examination of Capers outside the presence of the jury. In response to the prosecutor's questions, Capers explained that, approximately one week after the murder, Moye, Capers, and Harris were smoking marijuana in Moye's backyard. During that gathering, Moye made Capers "do a solemn ... oath, like say on word of [his] son [that he] wasn't going to tell something" or, in other words, "swear to God [he would not] say nothing." Capers "told [Moye] to say the same thing," and they went on to exchange secrets. Moye divulged details about the murder to Capers. Specifically, Moye told Capers that, when he was walking with Coleman and the defendant on the Canal Line Trail, they saw the victim and decided to "stain" him. Moye explained that he, Coleman, and the defendant approached the victim and asked if he was "SLB." Moye stated that the victim then punched Coleman in the face, and Coleman, in turn, pulled out his gun, a "baby nine," and attempted to shoot the victim, but the gun jammed, so the defendant shot him with his .380 caliber pistol. Moye did not tell Capers whether he was carrying a gun, himself, or whether they actually stole anything from the victim.

Defense counsel objected to the state's proffer, arguing that Moye's statement to Capers constituted inadmissible hearsay. Further, defense counsel argued that the statement could not be admitted as a statement against penal interest, an exception to the rule against hearsay, because it was "a very self-serving statement from Moye," insofar as "[h]e distanced himself from the whole process ...." The prosecutor, in turn, argued that Moye's statement to Capers did constitute a statement against penal interest. The prosecutor noted that Moye made the statement to Capers within one week of the murder, the person to whom Moye made the statement was a longtime friend, there was corroborating evidence in the case that supported Moye's statement, and the statement was against Moye's penal interest because he implicated himself in two felonies—robbery and felony murder—insofar as he was aware that Coleman and the defendant were armed with firearms and "that there was a likelihood that a death could result as a result of [the] robbery."

Ultimately, the trial court overruled defense counsel's objection to Capers’ testimony and concluded that the statement was admissible as a statement against penal interest. Specifically, after finding that Moye was unavailable,1 ...

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