State v. Harrell

Decision Date13 August 1996
Docket NumberNo. 15238,15238
Citation238 Conn. 828,681 A.2d 944
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Darryl Lee HARRELL.

Harry Weller, Assistant State's Attorney, with whom, on the brief, were James E. Thomas, State's Attorney, and Joan Alexander, Assistant State's Attorney, for appellant (state).

Kent Drager, Assistant Public Defender, for appellee (defendant).

Before PETERS, C.J., and BORDEN, NORCOTT, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

NORCOTT, Associate Justice.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether the term "murder" as used in the capital felony statute, General Statutes § 53a-54b, 1 includes unintentional murder in addition to intentional murder. The state charged the defendant, Darryl Lee Harrell, with one count of arson in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-111, two counts of arson murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54d, 2 and one count of capital felony in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54b(8). The trial court dismissed the count of capital felony after determining that only an intentional murder can be a predicate murder under § 53a-54b(8), and that the state had failed to establish probable cause that the defendant had violated § 53a-54b(8). Pursuant to General Statutes § 54-96, 3 the state appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The charges against the defendant stemmed from his alleged role in the arson of an apartment building that resulted in the deaths of two people. After a hearing in probable cause, the trial court, Corrigan, J., found that probable cause existed to support the arson murder counts. With respect to the capital felony count, however, the trial court concluded that, as a matter of law, only an intentional murder can be a predicate murder to a capital felony charge under § 53a-54b(8). The trial court then determined that, in light of the facts adduced at the hearing in probable cause, the counts of arson murder did not constitute "murder" under § 53a-54b(8) because there was no evidence to indicate the defendant's intent to cause the two deaths. Accordingly, the trial court concluded that "the [s]tate has failed to prove probable cause to hold the defendant on the charge of [c]apital [f]elony under ... § 53a-54b(8)." Thereafter, the trial court, Miano, J., dismissed the capital felony count and granted the state permission to appeal that ruling. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the state contends that the term "murder" in the capital felony statute is a generic term that broadly and unambiguously refers to alternate methods for committing the crime of murder, and thus encompasses unintentional as well as intentional conduct. The defendant contends, to the contrary, that the term "murder" unambiguously is limited to homicide in its most aggravated form, namely, intentional murder. The defendant contends, in the alternative, that the term "murder" is ambiguous and that this ambiguity must be resolved in his favor. We agree with the defendant's alternative argument, namely, that the term "murder" is sufficiently ambiguous that we must interpret it against the imposition of harsher punishment. 4 Accordingly, we conclude that the term "murder" in the capital felony statute may be properly applied only to intentional murder and does not encompass unintentional murder.

Our analysis of the issue of whether the reference to "murder" in the capital felony statute includes unintentional murder as well as intentional murder "is guided by well established principles of statutory construction. Statutory construction is a question of law and therefore our review is plenary.... [O]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature.... In seeking to discern that intent, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Burns, 236 Conn. 18, 22-23, 670 A.2d 851 (1996); State v. Spears, 234 Conn. 78, 86-87, 662 A.2d 80 (1995).

We are also mindful of well established principles that govern the construction of penal statutes. "Courts must avoid imposing criminal liability where the legislature has not expressly so intended." (Emphasis added.) State v. Breton, 212 Conn. 258, 268-69, 562 A.2d 1060 (1989). Accordingly, "[c]riminal statutes are not to be read more broadly than their language plainly requires and ambiguities are ordinarily to be resolved in favor of the defendant." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Jones, 234 Conn. 324, 340, 662 A.2d 1199 (1995); State v. Brown, 235 Conn. 502, 517, 668 A.2d 1288 (1995); State v. Hinton, 227 Conn. 301, 317, 630 A.2d 593 (1993).

Finally, in this case we are construing the capital felony statute. The resolution of this issue could result in the imposition of the death penalty on this defendant and on other defendants charged with similar offenses. It is axiomatic that any statutory construction implicating the death penalty must be based on a conclusion that the legislature has clearly and unambiguously made its intention known. See State v. Jones, supra, 234 Conn. at 340, 662 A.2d 1199; State v. Ross, 230 Conn. 183, 200, 646 A.2d 1318 (1994), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 1133, 130 L.Ed.2d 1095 (1995); State v. Breton, supra, 212 Conn. at 268-69, 562 A.2d 1060. The rules of strict construction and lenity applicable to penal statutes generally are "especially pertinent to a death penalty statute such as § 53a-54b." State v. McGann, 199 Conn. 163, 177, 506 A.2d 109 (1986); State v. Jones, supra, at 340, 662 A.2d 1199. Keeping in mind these governing principles, we turn to the task of interpreting the term "murder" in the capital felony statute.

The capital felony statute sets forth with specificity the offenses that may form the basis of a charge of capital felony. See footnote 1. Under the express terms of all but one of the subdivisions of the capital felony statute, a defendant must commit a "murder" in order to violate the statute. 5 Absent from the text of the statute, however, is any clear indication whether a predicate murder under the statute may be unintentional as well as intentional.

The state invokes the felony murder and arson murder statutes; General Statutes §§ 53a-54c 6 and 53a- Y as the basis for its claim that the term "murder" in the capital felony statute unambiguously encompasses unintentional murder. Specifically, the state contends that all three statutes apply similarly in the context of "murder" without limiting the term to intentional murder. The state then contends that because a specific intent is not required to violate the felony murder and arson murder statutes; see State v. Dupree, 196 Conn. 655, 663, 495 A.2d 691, cert. denied, 474 U.S. 951, 106 S.Ct. 318, 88 L.Ed.2d 301 (1985) (arson murder); State v. Young, 191 Conn. 636, 639-44, 469 A.2d 1189 (1983) (felony murder); a specific intent is likewise not required for "murder" under the capital felony statute. We disagree.

Although the state's argument has certain linguistic appeal, we find the defendant's response to have equal force. The defendant argues that the use of the term "murder" in the capital felony statute, when read in conjunction with the use of the same term in other penal code provisions, does not evince an unambiguous intent on the part of the legislature to encompass unintentional murder within the meaning of the term "murder." The defendant contends that whenever the legislature has intended to include unintentional murder as a predicate murder under the capital felony statute, it has so provided unambiguously. Section 53a-54b(6) provides that a person is guilty of capital felony if that person is convicted of "the illegal sale, for economic gain, of cocaine, heroin or methadone to a person who dies as a direct result of the use by him of such cocaine, heroin or methadone...." In subdivision (6) of § 53a-54b, the legislature omitted the term "murder" in defining an unintentional murder that is a predicate murder for a violation of the capital felony statute. The defendant argues that the linguistic difference between subdivision (6), the only subdivision of the capital felony statute that clearly refers to unintentional murder, and the other subdivisions of the capital felony statute, which expressly refer to "murder," reflects ambiguity as to the proper scope of the term "murder." 8

In addition, the defendant asserts that the ambiguity in the term "murder" is further reflected in the evolution of the present capital felony statute. When the legislature enacted the capital felony statute in 1973; Public Acts 1973, No. 73-137, § 3; the legislature contemporaneously eliminated felony murder from the penal code; Public Acts 1973, No. 73-137, § 15; 9 and redefined "murder" so as to encompass only intentional murder. Public Acts 1973, No. 73-137, § 2. 10 Thus, at the time when the legislature enacted the capital felony statute, intentional murder was the only form of murder expressly recognized in the penal code. The defendant argues that although the legislature subsequently enacted the felony murder statute in 1974 in order to restore the crime of felony murder to the penal code; Public Acts 1974, No. 74-186; see State v. Chicano, 216 Conn. 699, 718-19, 584 A.2d 425 (1990), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1254, 111 S.Ct. 2898, 115 L.Ed.2d 1062 (1991); the express limitation of "murder" to intentional murder when the legislature enacted the capital felony statute is a strong indication that the term "murder" in the capital felony statute is...

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  • State v. Lutters
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • July 20, 2004
    ...omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Davis, 255 Conn. 782, 788-89, 772 A.2d 559 (2001). In State v. Harrell, 238 Conn. 828, 832, 681 A.2d 944 (1996), emphasizing that a criminal statute should not be applied so as to impose criminal liability unless the legislature has "expr......
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    ...criminal liability should be strictly construed and ambiguities normally resolved in favor of the defendant. State v. Harrell, 238 Conn. 828, 832, 681 A.2d 944 (1996); State v. Roque, 190 Conn. 143, 151, 460 A.2d 26 (1983). Such strict construction, according to the defendant, precludes us ......
  • State v. Courchesne
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • March 11, 2003
    ...in interpreting criminal statutes, and emphasizes their special pertinence to death penalty statutes. See, e.g., State v. Harrell, 238 Conn. 828, 832-33, 681 A.2d 944 (1996) (statutory construction implicating death penalty must be based on conclusion that legislature has clearly and unambi......
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    • June 15, 2010
    ...which directs that any ambiguity in a capital felony statute must be interpreted in favor of the defendant; see State v. Harrell, 238 Conn. 828, 832-33, 838, 681 A.2d 944 (1996); a point I also made in my dissenting opinion in State v. Courchesne, 262 Conn. 537, 597-99, 609-13, 816 A.2d 562......
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3 books & journal articles
  • Significant Developments in Criminal Law 1995-1996
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 71, 1996
    • Invalid date
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  • Significant Developments in Criminal Law 1996-1997
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 72, 1997
    • Invalid date
    ...*. Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney. The author's views do not necessarily reflect those of the Division of Criminal justice. 1. 238 Conn. 828, 681 A.2d 944 2. CONN. GEN. STAT. §53a-54b(8). 3. Harrell, supra note I at 831. 4. Id. at 838. 5. 241 Conn. 702, 699 A.2d 57 (1997). 6. Harrel......
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    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 72, 1997
    • Invalid date
    ...Id. at 723. The case concerned the late filing of a habeas petition. 20.241 Conn. 702, 699 A.2d 57 (1997) (en banc). 21.State v. Harrell, 238 Conn. 828, 681 A.2d 944 22.241 Conn. at 721-24. 23.242 Conn. 93, 123-25, 700 A.2d 617 (1997) (en banc). 24.242 Conn. 745, 700 A.2d 1108 (1997). 25.M.......

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