State v. Pacheco

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Citation481 A.2d 1009
Docket NumberNo. 83-254-C,83-254-C
PartiesSTATE v. Manuel J. PACHECO and William F. Webster. A.
Decision Date30 August 1984


These cases come before us on appeal by two defendants, Manuel "Joe" Pacheco (Pacheco) and William Webster (Webster), from their convictions of murder and manslaughter respectively. Following a joint-jury trial in the Superior Court, a judgment of conviction for murder in the first degree was entered against Pacheco. On July 1, 1982, he was sentenced to life imprisonment as mandated by G.L.1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 11-23-2. Webster was found guilty of manslaughter, for which the trial justice sentenced him on August 16, 1982, to a term of twenty years, with fifteen years to serve, five years suspended, and five years' probation. Both defendants filed separate notices of appeal in this court, and their appeals were consolidated for our review. We affirm the judgment of conviction in respect to Pacheco but order a new trial in respect to Webster.

On Sunday, April 12, 1981, the body of Frederick Michael Mills (Mills) was found in a wooded area in Tiverton, Rhode Island. The victim was pronounced dead on the scene by the deputy state medical examiner, who testified at trial that an autopsy revealed death to have been the result of both multiple stab wounds inflicted by a knife and loss of blood. The medical examiner also testified that the victim's "superficial" neck artery had been severed and that he had suffered stab wounds in the heart. His autopsy report stated that the victim's male organ had been slashed and that a tattoo had been removed from the body. Police officers who responded to the scene reported that the arms of the victim were in a position that suggested crucifixion.

On April 13, 1981, Gwendolyn Ferry, with whom Mills had been living for about two weeks, responded to the Tiverton police department and advised the police that she had last seen Mills at her home on Saturday morning, April 11, 1981 at about 2 a.m. She reported that he had stayed briefly and then left, telling her that he was going out with "Joe." Ferry told the police that as Mills left, she saw him get into a car that was later determined to be Pacheco's.

On April 15, 1981, a co-worker of Elizabeth Gibbons (Gibbons), Pacheco's female companion, reported to the Tiverton police department and gave the following account to police officers. The co-worker stated that while at work on Monday, April 13, 1981, she had asked Gibbons about an injury on her face which appeared to be tooth marks. Gibbons reported that the injury had been inflicted by Pacheco. In an effort to comfort Gibbons, her co-worker told her, "Cheer up; the guy they found in Tiverton could be Joe," whereupon Gibbons began to cry and stated that "Joe killed the guy in Tiverton."

Gibbons later testified that on Friday, April 10, 1981, Pacheco and she had met Mills. Mills allegedly expressed an interest in Gibbons, and Pacheco was not pleased. Pacheco later that evening invited Mills to his apartment, whereupon Pacheco, outside Mills's hearing, told Gibbons that he was "going to slit the ________'s throat." Pacheco, Webster, and another companion, Arthur Hecox, persuaded Mills that they were all going out in what might be euphemistically called the pursuit of female company. The four men departed. Gibbons further testified that when Pacheco returned, he had blood on him, and he told her that he had killed Mills and that Webster had held a knife to Mills's neck as they preliminarily required Mills to remove the jacket he was wearing. Pacheco and Webster were subsequently indicted on April 28, 1981, for murder in the first degree in regard to the death of Frederick Michael Mills. 1


We shall initially address four of Webster's grounds for appeal. First, Webster claims that the trial justice committed reversible error in ruling that a statement made by Pacheco in Webster's presence was admissible against Webster as an adoptive admission. Second, he claims that the trial justice erred in admitting Webster's statement to a police officer on the night of his arrest. Third, he claims that the trial justice erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal. Fourth, he claims that the trial justice committed error in refusing to sever his trial from that of Pacheco. Additional facts will be supplied as needed in the discussion of these issues.


Webster learned through pretrial discovery that the state intended to introduce into evidence as an adoptive admission a statement made by Pacheco in Webster's presence. Thereupon, Webster filed a pretrial motion in limine to exclude all references to the statement during the trial. After conducting a hearing, the trial justice denied the motion and ruled that the statement was admissible against Webster as an adoptive admission in accordance with State v. Lerner, 112 R.I. 62, 83-84, 308 A.2d 324, 338-39 (1973). We agree with his ruling.

At the outset, we set forth the standard of review in ruling on the question before us. The issue of whether a statement is admissible as an adoptive admission depends upon the resolution of mixed questions of law and fact. With respect to a trial justice's findings of fact on motions to suppress, we have consistently held that they will be given great weight on appeal and will not be disturbed unless it can be shown that they are clearly wrong or that the trial justice overlooked or misconceived relevant evidence on a crucial issue. State v. Jenison, R.I., 442 A.2d 866, 872 (1982); State v. Cline, 122 R.I. 297, 303, 405 A.2d 1192, 1196 (1979); State v. Leavitt, 103 R.I. 273, 289-90, 237 A.2d 309, 318-19, cert. denied, 393 U.S. 881, 89 S.Ct. 185, 21 L.Ed.2d 155 (1968). We have also held that absent extraordinary circumstances, as in situations in which only one factual conclusion is possible and thus only a question of law is presented, the conclusions of a trial justice in mixed questions of law and fact are entitled to the same weight as are his factual findings. Fournier v. Fournier, 479 A.2d 708, 715 (R.I.1984); see DeNardo v. Fairmount Foundries Cranston, Inc., 121 R.I. 440, 449, 399 A.2d 1229, 1234 (1979).

At the preliminary hearing, the defense presented a witness, Richard Cobb, who testified that Pacheco and Webster came to his apartment shortly after the murder. Cobb further testified that Pacheco told him that he had just killed Mills and that "Webster held a knife while he made him [Mills] take off a leather coat." Cobb stated that Webster was within about three or four feet of Pacheco and Cobb when Pacheco made the statement. He stated that Webster never spoke but was smiling and nodding in affirmation. His testimony indicated that although he, Cobb, had consumed some alcohol several hours before seeing Pacheco and Webster, he had slept during the interim. He also stated that it appeared to him that Webster was "kind of on and off the board, the verge of being sober and drunk." Webster's testimony totally contradicted the account given by Cobb.

When an incriminatory or accusatory statement is made during a conversation that took place in the presence and hearing of a criminal defendant, and such statement is not denied by the defendant under circumstances in which repudiation of an untrue statement would be expected, both the statement and the fact of his silence are admissible against the defendant as an indication that the statement is true and the defendant has adopted it as his own. State v. Lerner, 112 R.I. at 83-84, 308 A.2d at 338; State v. Reitsma, 68 R.I. 310, 316, 27 A.2d 312, 315 (1942). This exception to the general rule that hearsay evidence is inadmissible does not of course apply under circumstances in which the defendant is in police custody and exercises his or her right to remain silent. State v. Marcello, 72 R.I. 382, 384-85, 51 A.2d 828, 829 (1947); State v. Epstein, 25 R.I. 131, 136-37, 55 A. 204, 206-07 (1903). In Lerner, supra, this court has stated that in ruling on the admissibility of such statements, a trial justice should consider five factors:

"(1) [whether] the statement was incriminating or accusatory;

"(2) that it was one to which an innocent person in the situation of the defendant would reply;

"(3) that it was made within the presence and hearing of the defendant "(4) that he understood the meaning of the statement; and

"(5) that he had an opportunity to deny or reply to the statement." State v. Lerner, 112 R.I. at 84, 308 A.2d at 338.

Webster argues that Pacheco's statement to Cobb did not meet the standards enunciated in State v. Lerner, and therefore was not admissible as an adoptive admission against him. He contends that because he was highly intoxicated, he was unable to understand and respond to Pacheco's statement.

We have examined the record and conclude that there is ample evidence to support the factual findings of the trial justice; he was not clearly wrong, nor did he misconceive or overlook the relevant evidence before him. In determining the facts about whether Webster heard Pacheco's statement, whether he was capable of understanding it, and whether he had an opportunity to respond, the trial justice assessed the credibility of Cobb and of Webster. The trial justice observed that Cobb's testimony was "not only clear and convincing * * * [but] much more reliable than the contradictory testimony of Mr. Webster." We believe that the trial justice considered all of the relevant factors before him and assessed the credibility of both witnesses as he is required to do. Assessment of credibility is within the province of the trial justice. State v. Jenison, 442 A.2d at 873. We therefore hold that the trial justice was correct in determining that Pacheco's statement to...

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