State v. Leniart

Decision Date10 September 2019
Docket NumberSC 19809, (SC 19811)
Citation333 Conn. 88,215 A.3d 1104
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties STATE of Connecticut v. George Michael LENIART

Stephen M. Carney, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael L. Regan, state's attorney, and John P. Gravalec-Pannone, former senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellant in Docket No. SC 19809 and the appellee in Docket No. SC 19811 (state).

Lauren Weisfeld, chief of legal services, for the appellee in Docket No. SC 19809 and the appellant in Docket No. SC 19811 (defendant).

Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Vertefeuille, Js.*

MULLINS, J.

Following a jury trial, the defendant, George Michael Leniart, was convicted of murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a (a) and three counts of capital felony in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1995) § 53a-54b (5), (7), and (9), as amended by Public Acts 1995, No. 95-16, § 4.1 The Appellate Court reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the trial court improperly excluded (1) a videotape that depicted a police officer interviewing a crucial prosecution witness prior to the administration of a polygraph examination, and (2) certain expert testimony proffered by the defendant regarding the reliability of jailhouse informant testimony. State v. Leniart , 166 Conn. App. 142, 146–47, 140 A.3d 1026 (2016). The Appellate Court also considered and rejected the defendant's claim regarding the sufficiency of the underlying evidence. Id. We granted both the state's and the defendant's petitions for certification to appeal.

In its certified appeal, the state challenges the conclusion of the Appellate Court that the videotape and expert testimony were improperly excluded. In his appeal, the defendant contends that he is entitled to a judgment of acquittal because, under the common-law corpus delicti rule, the state failed to set forth sufficient evidence, independent of the defendant's own admissions, to establish that the alleged victim was, in fact, dead.

We reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court with respect to the state's appeal and affirm the judgment with respect to the defendant's appeal. Specifically, we conclude that (1) although the defendant's corpus delicti claim is not merely evidentiary and, therefore, is reviewable on appeal, the Appellate Court correctly concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction, (2) although the Appellate Court correctly concluded that the trial court's exclusion of the videotape was improper, the exclusion of that evidence was harmless, and (3) the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in precluding the expert testimony proffered by the defendant.

The following facts, which the jury reasonably could have found, and procedural history are relevant to the claims before us. On May 29, 1996, the victim,2 who was then fifteen years old, snuck out of her parents' home to meet Patrick J. Allain, a teenage friend also known as P.J., so that they could smoke marijuana, drink alcohol, and have sex. The two teenagers were picked up by the defendant, who at the time was thirty-three years old. They then drove to a secluded, wooded location near the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge in the defendant's truck.

While parked, the victim and Allain kissed, drank beer, and smoked marijuana. At some point, the defendant, who had told Allain that he was in a cult, called Allain aside and told him that he wanted "to do" the victim and that he "wanted a body for the altar."

Allain, who feared the defendant, returned to the truck and informed the victim that he and the defendant were going to rape her. Allain then removed her clothes and had sex with her in the truck while the defendant watched through the windshield. After Allain and the victim finished having sex, the defendant climbed into the truck and sexually assaulted the victim while Allain held her breast. After the assault, the victim pretended not to be upset so that the defendant would not harm her further.

The defendant then drove the teenagers back to Allain's neighborhood. The defendant dropped off Allain near his home, and the victim remained in the truck. The victim never returned home that night and was never seen again, despite a protracted nationwide search by law enforcement. The search also did not recover her body.

Allain subsequently implicated the defendant in the victim's death. As a result, in 2008, the state charged the defendant with murder in violation of § 53a-54a, capital felony in violation of § 53a-54b (5) for murder in the course of a kidnapping, capital felony in violation of § 53a-54b (7) for murder in the course of a sexual assault, and capital felony in violation of § 53a-54b (9) for murder of a person under the age of sixteen. The case was tried to a jury.

The state's case against the defendant included the testimony of four witnesses, who each testified that, at different times, the defendant had admitted, directly or indirectly, to killing the victim. Allain, the state's key witness, was serving a ten year sentence for an unrelated sexual assault at the time of trial. He testified that, on the afternoon following the previously described events, the defendant had asked to meet with him on a path behind the Mohegan School in Montville. At that meeting, the defendant admitted that "he had to do [the victim]—to get rid of her." The defendant described to Allain how, after dropping Allain off the night before, he had pretended to run out of gas near the path.3 He then ripped the license plates off his truck, dragged the frantic victim into the woods, and choked her. Later that evening, at a second meeting, the defendant further confessed to Allain that he had killed the victim and had "erased" her by placing her remains in a lobster trap and dropping them into the mud at the bottom of the Thames River. The defendant was a lobster fisherman at the time.

Like Allain, the state's three other confession witnesses either were inmates at the time of trial or previously had been incarcerated. Each of these three witnesses had, at some point, been incarcerated with the defendant while he was serving time for an unrelated sexual assault charge. Kenneth S. Buckingham testified that the defendant confided in him that he accidentally had choked an intoxicated young girl to death while having sex with her and that he then dismembered the body and disposed of it in lobster pots "in the sound." Buckingham also testified that a person named P.J. had been with the defendant and that victim prior to the death. Michael S. Douton, Jr., testified that the defendant had told him that the victim "was in the river" and that "they would never convict him because they would never find [her] body," which had been eaten by crabs. Buckingham and Douton, like Allain, each testified that they hoped to receive some consideration from the state in return for their testimony. Zee Y. Ching, Jr., unlike the other witnesses, was not incarcerated or facing legal jeopardy at the time of trial. Ching testified that the defendant admitted that he had raped and killed a fifteen year old girl on his boat and that he had hidden the body in a well before ultimately dumping it in Long Island Sound.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The court merged the verdicts into a single conviction of capital felony and sentenced the defendant to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of release. On appeal to the Appellate Court, the defendant raised various challenges to the trial court's evidentiary rulings and also claimed, relying in part on the common-law corpus delicti rule, that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction. State v. Leniart , supra, 166 Conn. App. at 146–49, 140 A.3d 1026. The Appellate Court rejected the defendant's sufficiency claim but concluded that the trial court incorrectly had excluded the polygraph pretest interview videotape, as well as expert testimony relating to the credibility of jailhouse informants. The Appellate Court then concluded that those evidentiary rulings substantially affected the verdict and, accordingly, remanded the case for a new trial.4

We granted the state's petition for certification to appeal, limited to the questions of whether the Appellate Court correctly concluded that the trial court had erroneously excluded the polygraph pretest interview videotape and expert testimony regarding jailhouse informant testimony and that those rulings substantially affected the verdict.

State v. Leniart , 323 Conn. 918, 150 A.3d 1149 (2016). We also granted the defendant's petition for certification to appeal, limited to the question of whether the Appellate Court properly applied the corpus delicti rule in concluding that there was sufficient evidence to sustain his conviction of murder and capital felony. State v. Leniart , 323 Conn. 918, 918–19, 149 A.3d 499 (2016). Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.

ICORPUS DELICTI RULE

We first consider the claim raised in the defendant's appeal. Before the Appellate Court, the defendant argued, for the first time; see footnote 7 of this opinion; that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction because, under the common-law corpus delicti rule, the state had failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the crimes charged. As we explain more fully hereinafter, the corpus delicti rule, although defined and applied differently in other jurisdictions, and even in our prior cases, generally "prohibits a prosecutor from proving the [fact of a transgression] based solely on a defendant's extrajudicial statements."5 Black's Law Dictionary (7th Ed. 1999) p. 346. In the present case, the defendant argued that there was no evidence, aside from his various alleged admissions, that the victim actually was...

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15 cases
  • State v. Watson
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • January 21, 2020
    ...the court or the jury in determining the questions at issue. " (Emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Leniart , 333 Conn. 88, 142, 215 A.3d 1104 (2019). Furthermore, the need for an expert is determined on a case-by-case basis and is dependent on whether the issues are......
  • State v. Christopher S.
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    • March 10, 2021
    ...use of independent, corroborating evidence to establish the trustworthiness of a defendant's statement. See, e.g., State v. Leniart , 333 Conn. 88, 114, 215 A.3d 1104 (2019) (under "trustworthiness" doctrine, which grew out of and modified corpus delicti rule, state may generally rely on de......
  • State v. Jones
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    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • December 1, 2020
    ...of "jailhouse witness" testimony in criminal trials. Justice Palmer's recent concurring and dissenting opinion in State v. Leniart , 333 Conn. 88, 215 A.3d 1104 (2019), thoroughly describes that legislation and the critical safeguards that it implements: "That legislation, among other thing......
  • State v. Bruny
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    • February 7, 2022
    ...the testimony would be helpful to the court or jury in considering the issues." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Leniart , 333 Conn. 88, 142, 215 A.3d 1104 (2019), quoting State v. Taylor G. , 315 Conn. 734, 760, 110 A.3d 338 (2015). "It is well settled that [t]he true test of t......
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2 books & journal articles
  • 2019 Appellate Review
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 93, 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...333 Conn. 468,215 A.3d 711 (2019). [10] 331 Conn. 201, 214-24, 202 A.3d 350 (2019). [11] 333 Conn. 225, 229-40, 215 A.3d 116 (2019). [12] 333 Conn. 88, 138-52, 215 A.3d 1104 (2019). [13] 331 Conn. 561, 206 A.3d 725 (2019). [14] Notice that Justice Vertefeuille replaced Justice Ecker in Leni......
  • Chapter 7 Incentivized Informants and Snitches
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    • Carolina Academic Press When Justice Fails: Causes and Consequences of Wrongful Convictions (CAP)
    • Invalid date
    ...the risk of wrongful convictions. American Criminal Law Review, 53, 737-797. State v. Leniart, 140 A.3d 1026 (Conn. App. 2016), reversed, 215 A.3d 1104 (Conn. 2019). State v. Leniart, 215 A.3d 1104 (Conn. 2019). Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 2.024 (2019). Texas Code of Criminal ......

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