State v. Hargett, SC 20517

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Writing for the CourtD'AURIA, J.
PartiesSTATE OF CONNECTICUT v. NASIR R. HARGETT
Decision Date14 June 2022
Docket NumberSC 20517

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.

NASIR R. HARGETT

No. SC 20517

Supreme Court of Connecticut

June 14, 2022


Argued January 13, 2022

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Procedural History

Substitute information charging the defendant with

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the crime of murder, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Fairfield, where the court, Pavia, J., denied the defendant's motion for sanctions; thereafter, the case was tried to the jury before Pavia, J.; verdict and judgment of guilty, from which the defendant appealed to this court; thereafter, the appeal was transferred to the Appellate Court, Lavine, Elgo and Moll, Js., which affirmed the trial court's judgment, and the defendant, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

Jennifer Bourn, chief of legal services, with whom, on the brief, were Lauren Graham and Shannon Q. Lozier, certified legal interns, for the appellant (defendant).

Robert J. Scheinblum, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Joseph T. Corradino, state's attorney, and Ann F. Lawlor, supervisory assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

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

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OPINION

D'AURIA, J.

In this certified appeal, the defendant, Nasir R. Hargett, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the trial court's judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of one count of murder. On appeal, the defendant claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly determined that the trial court had not (1) violated his sixth amendment right to present a defense by excluding from evidence (a) a statement purportedly made by an unknown female bystander and (b) an autopsy toxicology report, (2) violated his right to due process by declining to give a jury instruction on self-defense, and (3) abused its discretion by declining to sanction the state for its late disclosure of the murder weapon and related expert reports by excluding this evidence or dismissing the murder charge. We affirm the Appellate Court's judgment but not without strongly cautioning the state regarding the late disclosure of evidence.

On October 13, 2014, Kaishon McAllister and his friends, Romy and Kahdeem, [1] walked to the defendant's house on East Main Street in Bridgeport. While McAllister, Romy, Kahdeem, and the defendant were talking on the porch of the defendant's home, the victim, Davon Robertson, walked up to the porch, although he did not step onto it, and slowly put his hands in his pockets. Without speaking, the victim grabbed a soda bottle off the porch and then left the area, walking toward Pearl Street.

After the victim moved on, McAllister, Romy, and Kahdeem left the porch and began walking toward McAllister's home on Pearl Street in the same direction as the victim. The defendant, however, went into his home and retrieved a sawed-off rifle. He subsequently caught up to McAllister, Romy, and Kahdeem, and a group of young men who were with them. The group of young men, including the defendant and McAllister, continued walking toward Pearl Street behind the victim. Near McAllister's home, the victim turned around.[2]The defendant and the victim "locked eyes" and exchanged unknown words. The defendant then fired the gun two or three times at the victim.[3] McAllister, Romy, and Kahdeem ran into McAllister's home. The defendant also ran from the scene but not into McAllister's home. The victim, who sustained gunshot wounds to his left upper chest and right lower leg, was taken to Bridgeport Hospital where he was pronounced dead. No weapon was found on his body.

Later that day, the police searched the crime scene and recovered two .22 caliber shell casings and a soda bottle. They also executed a search warrant at the defendant's home and seized a hacksaw and a file from his bedroom. The defendant was arrested the following day and charged with murder. The state subsequently filed

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a substitute information charging the defendant with murder and, pursuant to General Statutes § 53-202k, sought an enhancement of his sentence, if convicted, for having used a firearm in the commission of a class A, B or C felony.

At trial, the state relied primarily on the testimony of McAllister, the only eyewitness to testify. The jury subsequently found the defendant guilty of murder.[4] The defendant appealed, and the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of conviction. See State v. Hargett, 196 Conn.App. 228, 230, 229 A.3d 1047 (2020). The defendant then sought certification to appeal to this court, which we granted.[5] We will discuss additional facts and procedural history of record as required.

I

The defendant claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding from evidence (a) a statement purportedly made by an unidentified female bystander and (b) the victim's autopsy toxicology report. He argues that this evidence was admissible and relevant and that its exclusion violated his sixth amendment right to present a defense. Even assuming that the trial court improperly excluded this evidence, and that its exclusion violated the defendant's constitutional right to present his claim of self-defense, we conclude that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

"A [criminal] defendant has a constitutional right to present a defense, but he is [nonetheless] bound by the rules of evidence in presenting a defense. . . . Although exclusionary rules of evidence cannot be applied mechanistically to deprive a defendant of his rights, the constitution does not require that a defendant be permitted to present every piece of evidence he wishes. . . . Accordingly, [i]f the proffered evidence is not relevant [or is otherwise inadmissible], the defendant's right to [present a defense] is not affected, and the evidence was properly excluded." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Mark T., 339 Conn. 225, 231-32, 260 A.3d 402 (2021). If, however, the trial court improperly excluded the evidence, thereby depriving the defendant of his constitutional right to present his claim of self-defense, the state bears the burden of proving that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Osimanti, 299 Conn. 1, 16, 6 A.3d 790 (2010).

A

The defendant first claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court had not abused its discretion by excluding as irrelevant and inadmissible hearsay McAllister's testimony that an unidentified woman told him prior to the shooting that the victim had assaulted or robbed her at knife point earlier in the day. We conclude that any error was harm-

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less.

At trial, [6] defense counsel elicited from McAllister on cross-examination that, after the victim left the porch of the defendant's house, as McAllister was leaving the porch, an African American woman with purple hair approached him and was yelling. Although defense counsel never asked McAllister if the defendant was present when this unknown woman approached, McAllister did testify that the defendant remained on the porch until McAllister left the porch, at which time the defendant went inside his house. Because McAllister testified that the woman spoke to him as he was leaving the porch, it is unclear whether the defendant heard what she said or whether he already had gone inside his house. When defense counsel asked McAllister what the woman said to him, the prosecutor, with no further specificity, stated: "I'm going to object, Your Honor." The trial court, likewise with no specificity, sustained the objection.[7] In response, defense counsel argued that he was not offering the statement for its truth but "just [to show] that she said it." The trial court, however, explained that "[j]ust the fact that somebody said something certainly doesn't warrant an exception to the hearsay rule."

Even if we assume that the trial court improperly excluded McAllister's testimony as to what the woman said, and that its exclusion implicated the defendant's constitutional right to present his claim of self-defense, we conclude that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant first argues that excluding this evidence was harmful because it was relevant to his intent. He argues that, because he was charged with murder, and the court, at the state's request, had given the jury an instruction on the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree with a firearm, McAllister's testimony could have affected the verdict because the jury reasonably could have inferred that the defendant acted out of fear and with the intent to ensure that the victim left the neighborhood, not to kill the victim. Even if this evidence had been admitted, however, there was overwhelming circumstantial evidence of the defendant's specific intent to kill the victim. Specifically, the defendant retrieved a firearm from his home and then followed the victim, who had been walking away from him and evidently was leaving the neighborhood of his own accord. Then, rather than allowing the victim to leave the neighborhood, while the victim was standing still, the defendant shot at him at least twice, based on the number of shell casings and bullets the police recovered from the scene of the crime. This evidence belies any argument that the defendant was merely trying to scare the victim into leaving the neighborhood. The jury could not have reasonably inferred from this evidence that the defendant was merely attempting to scare the victim away from the neighborhood. Rather, in light of the defendant's pursuit of the victim with a firearm and the firing of multiple shots at him, the only

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reasonable inference the jury could have made was that the defendant intended to kill the victim. Moreover, although the jury may have inferred from this testimony, had it been admitted, that the defendant feared the victim, which...

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