State v. Jefferds, 9898
|19 June 1959
|89 R.I. 272,152 A.2d 231
|STATE v. Chester G. JEFFERDS. Ex.
|Rhode Island Supreme Court
J. Joseph Nugent, Jr., Atty. Gen., Edward F. J. Dwyer, Raymond J. Pettine, Asst. Attys. Gen., for the State.
Aram A. Arabian, Public Defender, Providence, for defendant.
This is an indictment charging the defendant with the murder of his wife on July 9, 1952. After a trial in the superior court the defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree. His motion for a new trial was denied. The case is before us on the defendant's exceptions to the denial of his motion for a new trial, to certain evidentiary rulings, and to the charge of the trial justice.
The exception first urged by defendant is that pertaining to the denial of his motion for a new trial. He contends primarily that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The decision of the trial justice denying the said motion is contained in a rescript. It is not contended that he did not properly exercise his function in considering the motion for a new trial, and it is clear from an examination of the rescript that his duty in this respect was properly performed.
It appears from the evidence that defendant and his wife had been married in 1941. Late in 1951 they separated, and on November 7 of that year she filed a petition for divorce on the ground of neglect to provide. During the pendency of her petition, which was not contested, she resumed her maiden name, Eleanor Erminelli. At the time of her death an interlocutory decree was in effect which granted the petition, but no final decree had been entered.
The evidence presented by the state tended to establish the following circumstances relative to Eleanor Erminelli's death. On July 9, 1952, at approximately 6:30 p. m. a gray coupe was involved in an accident in Park Place in the city of Pawtucket. Immediately prior to the accident two people were seen in the automobile. When the first witnesses arrived at the scene of the accident, defendant, bleeding profusely from the nose, was getting out of the automobile and Eleanor Erminelli was slumped over the wheel. It was subsequently determined that both had been shot. A .22 caliber rifle which appeared to have been recently fired was found on the floor between the two front seats of the automobile. Eleanor Erminelli died of gunshot wounds through the back of the head. The defendant was hospitalized for over a week as a result of a gunshot wound through the nose.
On July 8, the day before the automobile accident in Pawtucket, defendant, who lived at the Y. M. C. A. in the city of Providence, had driven to the home of a friend, Lawrence R. Andre, in West Kingstown in this state. At that time Andre returned to defendant a .22 caliber rifle which he had borrowed from him sometime previously. There was testimony that when Andre gave the rifle to defendant on July 8, it was not loaded. The defendant placed the rifle on the back shelf of the automobile which he was driving and covered it with a blanket. This automobile, which was owned by Eleanor Erminelli, was the same automobile in which she and defendant were found the next day.
Eleanor Erminelli was employed as a nurse at the South County Hospital in the town of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Late in the afternoon on July 9, 1952, after she had completed her day's work at the hospital, she was met by defendant who was driving her automobile. Approximately one hour later this same automobile with a woman driving stopped in front of the Y. M. C. A. in Providence and defendant got out of the car and entered the building. This was before 6 p. m.
Expert testimony was presented to the effect that metallic fragments found in the body of Eleanor Erminelli were derived from bullets fired from the rifle found in the automobile at the time of the accident. Police investigation of defendant's room in the Y. M. C. A. revealed the presence in a drawer of several .22 caliber bullets, and there was evidence that these bullets were similar to those whose fragments had been identified in the deceased's body.
At the time of his arraignment in the superior court defendant had pleaded not guilty by reason of insufficient mental capacity. In support of this plea he presented evidence tending to establish a history of epilepsy. The defense sought to show that he had suffered an epileptic seizure at the time of the alleged offense.
The defendant testified on his own behalf with respect to the events leading up to the automobile accident in Pawtucket. His testimony generally corroborated the evidence presented by the state. As to the commission of the alleged offense, defendant testified that he had no recollection of the circumstances immediately preceding and following his presence in Park Place. He stated his last recollection was that he was seated in the automobile with his wife on the way to the city of Pawtucket. He also testified with respect to his alleged history of epileptic seizures and treatments therefor. In rubuttal the state presented evidence which tended to contradict certain of the testimony given by defendant.
We are unable to perceive any error in the trial justice's denial of the motion for a new trial. The defendant has emphasized several alleged inconsistencies in the evidence presented by the state and has challenged as remote certain of the inferences which the state sought to draw from circumstantial evidence. It is our opinion that, even disregarding the evidence which defendant argues to be inconsistent and remote, there is nevertheless a sufficient basis therein for the finding of guilt. The defendant's exception numbered 13 is overruled.
The defendant's exceptions numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 relate to certain rulings upon evidence by the trial justice. We have examined each of the exceptions and find them to be without merit. We do not discuss specifically herein any of the rulings, since we are of the opinion that in no instance could defendant have been prejudiced by any error which may have been committed. All of these exceptions are overruled.
We would, however, direct attention to exceptions numbered 3 and 4. These were taken to the action of the trial justice in permitting an expert witness to state an opinion as to defendant's mental condition on the basis of testimony she had heard during the course of trial. Because of the peculiar form in which the question was asked we do not think the trial justice erred in admitting the answer. But it is our judgment that the admission of opinion evidence on such a basis could in some instances constitute prejudicial error.
The remaining exceptions are concerned with the trial justice's charge to the jury. These exceptions are based upon the following contentions: First, that there was error in the instructions as to reasonable doubt; second, that it was erroneous to charge the jury with respect to murder in the first degree; and third, that the portion of the charge relating to the insanity defense was erroneous.
In discussing reasonable doubt during the course of his charge, the trial justice employed the following language to which defendant excepted: '* * * it must be a doubt founded upon the evidence and predicated upon your conscience, if it was such a doubt as would deter you from entering into a business transaction of importance, then it is a reasonable doubt; if it does not reach those qualities or that state in your mind then the doubt is not reasonable * * *.'
In State v. Andrews, R.I., 134 A.2d 425, we stated that the phrase 'reasonable doubt' requires no definition by the trial justice. In that case, however, we noted at page 430 that 'when it appears that the jury is given the substance of the proper rule * * * we do not reverse for inartistic language unless we are convinced that the jury may have been misled thereby.' The above-quoted portion of the charge in this case constitutes an excerpt from a more extensive discussion of the subject of reasonable doubt. In our opinion the charge in this respect was substantially correct and sufficiently clear to prevent the jury from being confused or misled. The defendant's exception numbered 10 is overruled.
The defendant also took exception to the charge of the trial justice to the jury with respect to a finding of murder in the first degree. The short form indictment herein charges simply that defendant 'did murder one Eleanor Erminelli.' It is the argument of defendant that under this allegation he was put upon notice of a charge of second-degree murder only. It is urged that in order to support a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, the indictment must contain more than the simple charge of 'murder.' With this contention we do not agree.
General Laws 1956, § 12-12-6, reads in part as follows 'The indictment or complaint may charge, and is valid and sufficient if it charges, the offense for which ...
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