State v. Johnson

Decision Date29 January 2019
Docket Number (P1/15-1141A),No. 2017-358-M.P.,2017-358-M.P.
Citation199 A.3d 1046
Parties STATE v. Jody JOHNSON.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

For State: Owen Murphy, Department of the Attorney General.

For Defendant: Megan F. Jackson, Office of the Public Defender.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

Chief Justice Suttell, for the Court.

The defendant, Jody Johnson, was found guilty by a jury of first-degree robbery, conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery, and assault with a dangerous weapon in a dwelling house with intent to commit robbery. We granted his petition for writ of certiorari requesting direct review of his convictions.1 He argues that the trial justice erred by denying his motion for new trial because, according to the defendant, the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

IFacts and Procedural History

On April 10, 2015, defendant was charged by indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-1-6 ; one count of first-degree robbery, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-39-1(a) ; and one count of assault with a firearm in a dwelling house with intent to commit robbery, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-5-4.2 The defendant was tried before a jury over four consecutive days in January 2017 in the Providence County Superior Court. The state presented testimony from two individuals: the complaining witness, Mary Celletti, and a Providence police detective, Matthew Cute, who responded to Celletti's home and was subsequently involved in the investigation.

Mary Celletti testified that, on the evening of January 28, 2014, she was home alone and getting ready to watch "the presidential address" when she realized, either through a knock at the door or a ring of the doorbell, that someone was outside and wanted to come in. Before opening the door, Celletti asked who was outside and heard "I'm locked out of the house" from an unfamiliar voice who also told her his mother was not at home. Celletti "opened the door a crack" and saw a boy around the age of ten or eleven standing there. She asked him if he wanted to use her phone and opened the door to allow him to enter. After he walked into her house, she tried to close the door but the door pushed back open and a "tall, muscular man" with black skin, a dark blue jacket, a hood, a scarf, and glasses appeared in the doorway and asked her what she was doing with his son. As she answered that she thought the boy was locked out of his house and she was allowing him to use her phone, the man pulled out a gun with a "dirty silver barrel" and brown handle and pointed it at her face. Celletti observed that the man's glasses were dark gray with Scotch tape on one side holding the arm to the front frame of the lenses. The man instructed Celletti to go sit down, and she sat down on her bed, located in an open alcove adjacent to the kitchen.

Celletti testified that the man asked her who else lived in her home; when she replied that her son lived there but was at his girlfriend's house that evening, the man asked where the son's bedroom was located and said that he was there to collect money the son owed him. The man then took off his scarf and his jacket, hung the jacket on the back of a kitchen chair, and pulled down the hood of his sweatshirt, uncovering his head. He made a phone call and Celletti heard a third person enter her house from the same door through which the boy and the man had come. The man handed the gun to the boy and instructed him to sit in a chair across from Celletti. The boy held the gun on her while the man disappeared from view and spoke with the third person who had entered her home. Celletti testified that she never saw the third person's face, but that she concluded this person was female from the timbre of the voice. Celletti described the third person as tall and thin, wearing a red hoodie, with the hood up for the entire duration of the incident.

Celletti testified that she engaged the boy in conversation and told him about herself "to humanize [her]self with [him]" and to try to find out who he was. She learned his name and the name of his school. When the boy wanted a drink, Celletti gave him a can of Diet Coke. She asked him if he had ever held a gun before and if he thought they were going to kill her.

Celletti testified that she saw her son's mattress and boxspring being lifted up as well as things in her bedroom torn up; she also heard her computer being moved, her pocketbook being dumped out, her television being turned off, unplugged, and carried out, as well as the movement of other televisions in her home. Celletti also stated that the people who entered her home left with bags from her basement, her cell phone, her home phone, bottles of red wine, coin collections, CDs and DVDs, her son's wedding band, and cash, among other things. Before the group of intruders left, the man took the gun from the boy, used a bra from Celletti's dirty clothes hamper to wipe the gun off, and, on his way out the door, said: "If you call the cops, I'm coming back."

A few moments later, Celletti saw the man's jacket on the back of her kitchen chair, called out to him, and gave the jacket to him. After realizing that both her cell phone and her home phone had been taken, she found an old cell phone with just enough battery charge to make a call to her daughter and screamed that she had just been "robbed at gunpoint." Her daughter soon arrived at the house, which shortly thereafter was "swamped with police from Johnston and Providence."

Both Celletti and Det. Cute testified that, a few days after the incident, the detective brought a yearbook from the boy's school over to Celletti's house and Celletti was able to identify the boy who had been in her house the night of the incident. Both witnesses also testified that, two weeks after the incident, Det. Cute brought over a photo array which included defendant's photo, but Celletti was unable to identify any of the men in the photographs as the man who had entered her home on January 28.

Some months after being shown the photo array, Celletti called the Attorney General's office to inquire about the legal proceedings involving the boy. After a brief conversation—the substance of which is not on the record—she used her daughter's laptop computer to search Facebook for the name "Jodi Johnson." Celletti thought this might have been the name of the third person in her house on January 28 whom she had not seen but had assumed was a woman based on the voice. After scrolling through the various Jodi Johnsons who came up in the Facebook search results, she looked at photos for different spellings of "Jodi." She testified that, "all of a sudden [she] saw a picture that was very familiar to [her], but it wasn't a female, it was a male." Celletti testified that, based on the eyes and the large head, "he looked like the man who came into [her] house with a gun." Celletti clicked on the photo, which brought her to that man's Facebook profile page. Celletti scrolled through several photos of this "Jody Johnson," including one in which he was wearing glasses with tape on the corner. When Celletti saw that picture, she was "a hundred percent" certain this photo was of the man who had entered her house on January 28. Celletti called Det. Cute, who testified that he went to her house, watched her repeat the search sequence she had performed on Facebook, and, using his own cell phone camera, took photos of the images on her computer screen. Celletti identified defendant as the man who entered her home and pointed a gun at her face.

At the close of the state's evidence, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal on the assault charge, arguing that insufficient evidence had been produced that a firearm was used during the incident. The trial justice denied the motion. The defendant renewed his motion prior to the delivery of the jury instructions and closing arguments; the trial justice reserved his decision. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts. In March 2017, the trial justice denied defendant's renewed motion for judgment of acquittal and motion for new trial, in which defendant argued that the jury's verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence and Celletti's testimony.

The trial justice imposed a sentence of twenty-five years' imprisonment with twelve years to serve and the balance suspended, with probation, on defendant's first-degree robbery conviction and on defendant's assault-with-a-firearm conviction. With respect to defendant's conspiracy conviction, the trial justice initially sentenced him to twenty years' imprisonment with ten years to serve and ten years suspended, with probation, but corrected the sentence sua sponte a month later because this sentence exceeded the statutory maximum. Accordingly, he modified the sentence to ten years' imprisonment with ten years to serve. Each sentence runs concurrently with the sentences for the other convictions. Final judgment entered on May 30, 2017. The defendant filed a notice of appeal before the trial justice entered a final judgment of conviction, but did not file another notice of appeal after the trial justice corrected the sentence imposed for the conspiracy conviction. We granted defendant's petition for writ of certiorari asking this Court for direct review of his convictions.

IIStandard of Review

The defendant appeals only from the trial justice's denial of his motion for new trial. As we have oft repeated, "[w]hen a trial justice...

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