State v. Haskins, 14–299.

Docket NºNo. 14–299.
Citation150 A.3d 202
Case DateJuly 15, 2016
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

150 A.3d 202

STATE of Vermont

No. 14–299.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

July 15, 2016.

150 A.3d 205

Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Chittenden County State's Attorney, and Pamela Hall Johnson, Deputy State's Attorney, Burlington, for Plaintiff–Appellee.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Marshall Pahl, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant–Appellant.



¶ 1. This is an attempted murder case. At trial, defendant theorized that a group of late-night club-goers with whom he was partying conspired to frame him for a stabbing that occurred in downtown Burlington shortly after two o'clock in the morning of January 15, 2012. Defendant argues that the trial court erred by excluding exculpatory testimony and by giving misleading jury instructions regarding reasonable doubt and permissive inferences. We affirm on all issues and uphold defendant's conviction.

¶ 2. Three important features defined this case at trial. First, there was confusion over who stabbed the victim. This confusion was created by the quickly unfolding nature of the events that led to the stabbing, the number of people at or near the scene of the altercation, the victim's inability to identify the person who stabbed him, and the incomplete and conflicting recollections of witnesses. Second, due to the lack of physical evidence linking defendant to the stabbing, the State's case relied principally on the testimony of various witnesses, including the victim, two women who witnessed the stabbing from their nearby parked car, three members of the group of club-goers, defendant's former girlfriend, defendant's surrogate mother, a trauma surgeon who treated the victim, and several Burlington Police Department officers who responded to or investigated the crime. Third, as noted, defendant's primary theory at trial was that the group of friends he was with at the scene conspired to frame him to protect the actual perpetrator among them. He emphasizes that members of the group did not implicate him in the crime until after they were initially interviewed by police.

¶ 3. The jury was tasked with piecing together multiple witnesses' testimony—much of which was incomplete or conflicting—into a coherent picture of what occurred that night. The following rendition of the facts is drawn from that testimony. On the night of January 14, 2012, defendant met his former girlfriend, Sarah Giles, at a pool hall in downtown Burlington. Giles and defendant had dated from the end of October 2011 until shortly before the New Year, and had lived together at Giles' apartment for part of that period. They met that night contemplating getting back together again, and they engaged in hugging and kissing at the pool hall. Giles informed defendant that she planned to go to a local nightclub later with their mutual friend, Jess Sturtevant, with whom defendant had grown up.

¶ 4. Giles and Sturtevant arrived at the nightclub at approximately ten-thirty in the evening and encountered Shaun Couture, Chad Limoge, Jess Cornell, and Hannah

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Yuric. Giles had known Cornell and Yuric since high school, but did not know Couture and was only tangentially aware of Limoge, who was Couture's cousin and Cornell's boyfriend. Defendant arrived at the club with two of his friends about an hour after Giles and Sturtevant had gotten there. Defendant and Giles continued to interact romantically at the club.

¶ 5. Several minutes past two in the morning after the club closed, defendant, Giles, Sturtevant, Cornell, Yuric, Couture, and Limoge went outside to get pizza at a next-door pizzeria. While they were outside, another man, Eric Hazen, who had been at the club and who Giles knew from high school, engaged defendant and Giles in a conversation. As the group waited for pizza, Cornell began yelling that she had been grabbed or punched by the victim, a stranger who was passing by on the sidewalk. Couture and Limoge confronted the victim, and an argument ensued. There was testimony from some members of the group, which was contradicted by the victim, that the victim attempted to punch Limoge but inadvertently struck Cornell instead. At that point, several members of the group—defendant, Couture, Limoge, Hazen, and Yuric—began pursuing the retreating victim to the end of the block. Giles testified that she yelled at defendant to come back, and that he did so initially but turned around again to join the others in pursuit of the victim.

¶ 6. The exact details of the stabbing itself are even less clear. The victim testified that he was followed around a corner by two men from the group, and when those two men confronted him, he squared up to fight. Although the victim did not remember much about the perpetrator's appearance, he recalled that one of the men, the taller of the two, lunged in towards him. The victim testified: "I just felt like a punch in my stomach, and then I knelt down ... trying to catch my breath. And then I felt it was like wetness, and then I saw blood going down and I was like, ‘Fuck, you fucking stabbed me.’ "

¶ 7. Couture testified that defendant had stabbed the victim. According to Couture, he followed the victim down the street from where the altercation started and around the corner, at which point defendant ran past him and appeared to punch the victim in the stomach before running away. Two women who were in a parked car near where the stabbing took place testified as to what occurred and described the assailant. The woman with the clearer recollection of the altercation testified that the victim—a black man—came around the corner while being followed by two white men. According to the witness, after the victim said something like "I ain't got your shit," the taller of the two men leaned in and made a swiping motion toward the victim's midsection, after which both white men ran off, heading in different directions once they reached the corner from which they had come.

¶ 8. Within seconds of being stabbed, the victim flagged down a police cruiser. Shortly thereafter, other police officers in the area encountered Couture, Limoge, and Yuric. At some point, Giles contacted defendant, who had gone to the nearby apartment of his friend, Chad Ely, the son of Emma Ely, who testified that defendant had been a close part of her family since he was five years old. Giles, Sturtevant, and Cornell then went to Ely's apartment to join defendant. The three women remained at the apartment for about half an hour, until Sturtevant was able to get hold of Yuric, at which point the women went to the Burlington police station to be interviewed. In the early morning hours of January 15, the police interviewed Couture, Limoge, Yuric, Giles, Sturtevant, and Cornell, none of whom mentioned defendant's

150 A.3d 207

presence at or involvement in the altercation.

¶ 9. After the interviews, Giles, Sturtevant, Couture, and Limoge left the police station together in Giles's car. There was conflicting testimony as to how it transpired, but during the ride Couture told Limoge, who in turn told the women, that Giles's boyfriend had stabbed the victim. Couture reported that to the police the next day. Meanwhile, Giles contacted defendant through Facebook and told him that people were saying he had stabbed the victim. When defendant responded to her message later that morning, Giles asked defendant what had happened the previous night, and he told her that they could talk about it later. Giles testified that she met defendant later that day, at which time he admitted to her that he had stabbed the victim because he thought the victim had struck Sturtevant. Giles further testified that she encouraged defendant to turn himself in to police, but when he later denied being the assailant in another Facebook exchange with her, she went to the police on January 17 and told them defendant had admitted stabbing the victim. Giles agreed to meet with defendant wearing a body wire, but during their recorded conversation he did not admit to stabbing the victim. Defendant was arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder.

¶ 10. At trial, defendant's primary theory was that the group of party-goers conspired to frame him to protect the actual perpetrator among them. Apparently unconvinced by this theory, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and defendant was sentenced to twenty years to life, all suspended except for twelve years. On appeal, defendant alleges that the trial court erred by: (1) not allowing a police officer to testify that Limoge telephoned police on the morning of January 15 to report that he had overheard Giles and Sturtevant saying that defendant stabbed the victim; (2) incorrectly instructing the jury on the meaning of reasonable doubt; (3) suggesting in its intent-to-kill instruction that defendant harbored such intent; and (4) not telling the jury that it had to find each basic fact beyond a reasonable doubt in order to infer this intent.


¶ 11. Defendant first argues that the trial court erroneously refused to allow a police officer to testify that Limoge called police not long after he was initially interviewed to report that he had overheard Giles and Sturtevant in the car ride from the police station saying that...

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  • State v. Bergquist, 17-281
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 22, 2019
    ...or variance which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded."); State v. Haskins, 2016 VT 79, ¶¶ 17, 28, 202 Vt. 461, 150 A.3d 202 (holding error is harmless if it is beyond reasonable doubt that jury would have convicted even had error not occurred, given strength of case wit......
  • State v. Larkin, 16–315
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • February 16, 2018
    ...would have returned a guilty verdict even if the excluded testimony had been admitted." State v. Haskins, 2016 VT 79, ¶ 17, 202 Vt. 461, 150 A.3d 202. To do this, we must consider and balance two components: "(1) the strength of the case against defendant without the excluded evidence, and ......
  • State v. Baird, 16–190
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • August 25, 2017
    ...weapon is actually used in a crime, the jury may use this fact to infer malice. See State v. Haskins, 2016 VT 79, ¶ 42, 202 Vt. 461, 150 A.3d 202, cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 1375, 197 L.Ed.2d 557 (2017) (holding that "court did not err by charging the jury that it could, but was......
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    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • February 16, 2018
    ...would have returned a guilty verdict even if the excluded testimony had been admitted." State v. Haskins, 2016 VT 79, ¶ 17, 202 Vt. 461, 150 A.3d 202. To do this, we must consider and balance two components: "(1) the strength of the case against defendant without the excluded evidence, and ......
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