State v. Mastracchio

Decision Date28 July 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-328-C,87-328-C
Citation546 A.2d 165
PartiesSTATE v. Gerald S. MASTRACCHIO. A.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

James E. O'Neil, Atty. Gen., Thomas Dickinson, Annie Goldberg, Asst. Attys. Gen., for plaintiff.

Richard Casparian, Public Defender, Catherine A. Gibran, Barbara Hurst, Asst. Public Defenders, for defendant.


FAY, Chief Justice.

On December 4, 1985, a grand jury composed of twenty people returned indictment No. Pl/85-3173 against the defendant, Gerald S. Mastracchio, charging him with the 1979 murder of Richard Valente (Ricky). A Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of the murder in violation of G.L. 1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 11-23-1. Having denied the defendant's motion for a new trial, the trial justice committed the defendant to the Adult Correctional Institutions for a mandatory life sentence. Section 11-23-2. The defendant, who was seventeen years old at the time of the murder, appeals to this court, contesting the Superior Court's jurisdiction. He also assigns as error certain evidentiary rulings.

Meredith Valente, mother of the deceased, reported to the West Warwick police on December 13, 1979, that her thirteen-year-old son had been missing for two days from their home in the Elms Apartment Complex at 55 Cowesett Avenue. The report also indicated that he had run away on a previous occasion. Valente's parents testified at Mastracchio's bail hearing and trial that after the first run-away incident, Ricky was treated by a psychologist and that Mrs. Valente waited to notify the police because she was hoping that her son would return.

Mrs. Valente last saw her son on December 11, 1979. Ricky arrived at her place of employment for a ride home, as he did every afternoon after school. Having a Christmas party to attend, Mrs. Valente drove her son part-way home and let a coworker complete the trip. She testified that when she returned home at 9:30 p.m., Ricky was not there. Among other efforts she made to locate Ricky, the following evening she went to the Mastracchio apartment to ask defendant if he had seen Ricky. Although defendant stated that he had been home all night, and his mother supported that statement, defendant's sister claimed that Gerald had gone out.

Two days after Mrs. Valente reported Ricky missing, a total of four days after his disappearance, the Jamestown police responded to a report of a body lying face down on the west shore of Jamestown Bay, just north of the bridge. Rhode Island's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. William Q. Sturner, performed an autopsy the following day, December 16, 1979. 1 Doctor Sturner testified at trial that the cause of death was "craniocerebral trauma with submersion." Along with various minor scrapes on his body, abrasions showed on Ricky's forehead and left cheek, and his upper lip was cut and swollen. The doctor's internal examination of the body revealed contusions on the frontal lobes of the brain and bleeding. From the lack of any external pattern to the head injuries, the examiner concluded that a soft blunt instrument, such as a hand or fist, had inflicted the damage. He also stated that such injuries would have prevented purposeful movement. The doctor found extensive watery fluid in the lungs and surrounding cavities, as well as in the left side of the heart. Toxicology tests performed on the fluid indicated to Sturner that the victim had breathed water and that drowning was the final cause of Ricky Valente's death. Livor mortis, the postmortem pooling of blood in the parts of the body situated closest to the ground, indicated that Ricky had died face down in the water. The condition of the body suggested that he may have been in the water for anywhere from one to four days.

The police investigation following the homicide yielded insufficient evidence to charge Mastracchio. Ricky's parents related to the police that their son considered Mastracchio, a downstairs neighbor, his friend. Both parents separately told about a severe car accident in which Ricky had been involved when he was ten years old that had changed his personality. He had suffered a debilitating head injury that required the insertion of a plate in his skull and approximately 436 stitches. The boy had become terrified of pain. The Valentes described their son as eager to please others, a follower rather than a leader, who preferred the company of older boys because he felt safe with them. At trial, Mrs. Valente said Ricky had been caught stealing a radio from a car parked at the next-door apartment building. According to Mrs. Valente's testimony, on Thanksgiving Day of 1979 she brought her son to the West Warwick police station and Ricky told the police that Gerry Mastracchio and Steven Dionne had participated in the theft attempt.

The State Police discovered a witness, Kenneth Chase, who substantiated that Valente, Mastracchio, and Dionne knew one another. Chase, who lived on a dead-end street containing only one other dwelling, identified photographs of the three youths from an array of eight or nine pictures. He remembered seeing them together at the other house on his street. Without any concrete evidence against Mastracchio, the police left the case unresolved.

Six years after the incident, on February 28, 1985, the Providence police apprehended Peter Gilbert. Gilbert implicated himself in several crimes and gave crucial information relating to the unsolved Valente case. 2 In return for this information, the Office of the Attorney General arrived at a plea arrangement with the witness.

Gilbert offered testimony that directly connected defendant to the crime. He testified that in 1983, after escaping from a Florida prison where he was serving a five-year sentence, he returned to Rhode Island. He immediately went to the home of his close friends, the Mastracchio family. At trial Gilbert stated he had known defendant since the latter was seven or eight years old and that he had helped to raise the boy. On his first or second night back in town, he and Mastracchio drove around town "looking for beer." Gilbert, nervous about his escape status and attracting police attention, criticized defendant for disobeying traffic signals and driving erratically. At that point, Mastracchio bragged that the police would not bother him because they knew it would be futile. He admitted that the authorities had questioned him about a murder, and he told Gilbert that he and Dionne were concerned that Valente would speak up about crimes they had committed. According to Gilbert, Mastracchio confided that the two youths "gave him [Valente] a severe beating," "smacked his head in and threw him in the car," and drove toward Newport to dispose of the body. The defendant stated to Gilbert that he heard noises from the body. Approaching the crest of the Jamestown bridge, he and Dionne noticed no headlights behind them. Taking advantage of the fog and the concealment from oncoming traffic, they stopped the car and dumped the body over the rail, watching as Valente hit the water.

Despite Gilbert's extensive criminal record and favorable plea arrangement with the Attorney General, the jury believed his testimony and returned a verdict against defendant. The defendant presently contends, as he did below, that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to hear his case because at the time of the murder he was a seventeen-yearold youth subject only to Family Court jurisdiction. The fact that the state did not bring its case against him until he had attained the age of twenty-three should not subject the act of a minor to the adult criminal-justice system. The defendant further contends that the trial justice wrongly admitted Mrs. Valente's testimony regarding the stolen radio. He claims that the evidence constitutes hearsay that prejudiced defendant because it provided a motive for Mastracchio and substantiated Gilbert's testimony. The defendant also appeals from the trial justice's having admitted Chase's identification testimony, his refusal to instruct the jury concerning that testimony, and his failure to give cautionary instructions or to pass the case in response to the prosecutor's allegedly prejudicial comment during closing argument.


General Laws 1956 (1985 Reenactment) § 8-10-3(a) establishes jurisdiction in the Family Court regarding "those matters relating to delinquent, wayward, dependent, neglected or mentally defective or mentally disordered children * * *." General Laws 1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 14-1-3(C) defines "child" as "a person under eighteen (18) years of age." Had the state initiated its case at the time of the crime, Mastracchio would have been subject to the parens-patrie treatment of the Family Court. Rather than fix criminal guilt and dispense punishment, the juvenile-justice system emphasizes rehabilitation as its purpose. Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541, 554, 86 S.Ct. 1045, 1054, 16 L.Ed.2d 84, 93-94 (1966); § 14-1-2. 3 The Family Court, however, is a statutory court that possesses limited jurisdiction, a court whose powers are restricted to those conferred by the Legislature. State v. Kenney, 523 A.2d 853, 854 (R.I.1987); In re Craig F., 518 A.2d 629, 630 (R.I.1986); Waldeck v. Piner, 488 A.2d 1218, 1220 (R.I.1985); Castellucci v. Castellucci, 116 R.I. 101, 105, 352 A.2d 640, 645 (1976).

Although other courts have jurisdiction when a person over the age of eighteen commits a crime, once Family Court has attained jurisdiction over a child, it may continue to exercise power until that child turns twenty-one years old. Knott v. Langlois, 102 R.I. 517, 521, 231 A.2d 767, 768 (1967); § 14-1-6. Which court will exercise jurisdiction, however, is of crucial significance for the accused:

"Realistically, it can spell the difference between a proceeding civil in nature with the possibility of detention in a juvenile institution for rehabilitative rather than retributive purposes for a term which cannot extend beyond his 21st birthday...

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