State v. Ralls

Decision Date31 December 1974
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. John W. RALLS.

John R. Williams, New Haven, for appellant (defendant).

Ernest J. Diette, Jr., Asst. State's Atty., with whom, on the brief, were Arnold Markle, State's Atty., and Richard P. Sperandeo, Chief Asst. State's Atty., for appellee (state).


LOISELLE, Associate Justice.

The defendant, John W. Ralls, was indicted by a grand jury for the crime of murder in the first degree in that he 'wilfully, deliberately and premeditatedly did shoot one Barbara Howell . . . in violation of section 53-9 (repealed by Public Acts 1969, No. 828, effective October 1, 1971) of the General Statutes of Connecticut.' A jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree. The defendant has appealed.

Of the sixty-three assignments of error advanced by the defendant, thirty have not been briefed and are considered abandoned. State v. Weston, 164 Conn. 635, 636, 325 A.2d 457; State v. Bitting, 162 Conn. 1, 3, 291 A.2d 240.

The remaining thirty-three assignments of error, variously presented, form the issues on this appeal, 1 and specifically involve claims that: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support a verdict; (2) errors were committed in the admission of evidence; (3) the court's supplementary charge was coercive; and (4) effective assistance of counsel was denied.

The defendant claims that there was insufficient evidence to submit the case to the jury, and hence, it was error to render judgment on the jury's verdict. This issue must be tested by the evidence presented in the appendices to the briefs. State v. Cobbs, 164 Conn. 402, 424, 324 A.2d 234; State v. Kearney, 164 Conn. 135, 136, 318 A.2d 100; State v. Mayell, 163 Conn. 419, 421, 311 A.2d 60. From the evidence printed in the appendix to the defendant's brief, the jury could reasonably have found the following facts: On Sunday, March 1, 1970, at about 1 or 1:30 p.m., the body of Barbara Howell, the defendant's mother-in-law, was discovered on the floor of a red Chevrolet parked behind the First National store on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden. Death had occurred between 9 and 11 a.m. that day, and had been caused by multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest from a .32 caliber semiautomatic pistol.

A search of the automobile revealed three spent .32 caliber cartridge casings, and one expended .32 caliber bullet. Two other bullets were removed from the victim's body. Of the five latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the car, the only fingerprint with sufficient identifying characteristics was a thumbprint of the defendant taken from the right vent window.

At the time of the murder, the defendant was separated from his wife and lived with his three daughters at the home of his parents. Gwendolyn Ralls, the defendant's wife, left him in September, 1969, after he had stabbed her in the leg. In May, 1969, she had Ralls arrested for aggravated assault after he hit her with a bottle. The defendant, on several occasions, had threatened to kill her and her mother, Barbara Howell.

Around 5 a.m. on March 1, 1970, Ada Rawls, the defendant's mother, told the defendant to call his sister who had received a latter for the defendant from his wife. The defendant made the telephone call, and, after speaking, he became upset and went to bed. Mrs. Rawls did not know about the defendant's feelings towards his mother-in-law but admitted that she had previously told the police that he had threatened to 'get' his wife and his mother-in-law.

The defendant left his home on March 1, 1970, around 9 a.m. and drove his car, a black Oldsmobile, to the home of Barbara Howell to pick up some clothes for his three children. The defendant returned home with the clothes, left again and was seen driving away with the deceased in her Chevrolet shortly before 10 a.m. The defendant came home around 3 p.m. that afternoon, went out, returned at 6 or 7 p.m. that evening and then left again.

The defendant's daughter, Sharron, aged eight, had seen a gun when her sister, Michelle, aged five, had laid it on the floor of their bedroom in the presence of her sister Jacquelyn and herself. Jacquelyn, aged nine, testified that her sister had told her that their father was going to hurt their grandmother, but that she asked him and he said 'no.'

Donald Rawls, the defendant's brother, had seen the defendant with a gun on the two nights before the Sunday that Mrs. Howell was killed. Donald Rawls told the police that the gun he had been shown by the defendant was a .32 automatic. The defendant had told him that Gwendolyn, the defendant's wife, would not live to see Monday.

The defendant went to the apartment of Samuel F. Bowens in West Haven on March 1, 1970, sometime between 10:30 and 11 a.m., and asked Bowens to cash a $500 United States Chemical Corporation check. The defendant had owed Bowens some money and received $300 for the check. Ralls left about 11 a.m. Bowens did not see any car driven by the defendant, but the defendant had said nothing about his car running out of gas or breaking down.

Charles Cook, the defendant's coworker at United States Chemical, had seen the defendant one day at work in February, 1970, with a gun which appeared to Cook to be an automatic. Also, in February, 1970, the defendant had said to Donna Burkman, office manager for United States Chemical, where the defendant was employed, that if he had had a gun 'last night' he would have killed his mother-in-law, his mother and his three children. He stated to her that his mother-in-law interfered in his marriage. After the homicide, on March 2 and 3, Donna Burkman discovered that two payroll checks made out to Ralls in advance and five blank checks, as well as $80 in petty cash, were missing from the office. One of the blank checks was the $500 check which Bowens had cashed on March 1, 1970.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4, 1970, the defendant went to Samuel Bowens' apartment and spoke with Mrs. Bowens for about ten minutes when the police arrived and arrested him at approximately 5:30 p.m. At the time of his arrest the defendant had in his possession an envelope containing four checks and a petty cash receipt.

When asked by the arresting officer about the weapon used to shoot Mrs. Howell, the defendant denied ever having a gun. He was taken to the West Haven police department and booked. While being transported to the Hamden police department for photographs and fingerprints, the defendant told detectives that on Saturday evening, February 28, 1970, his automobile had broken down in West Haven on Orange Avenue in front of a Dunkin' Donut shop. He left his car and hitchhiked a ride home from an unknown male. The next morning, March 1, he started to walk to the home of Barbara Howell to pick up his children's clothes and on the way met James Senior who drove him to the Howell home. The defendant stated that Barbara Howell drove him home where he dropped off the clothes at about 9:45 a.m. He told Mrs. Howell that his car had run out of gas; he asked her to drive him to his car on Orange Avenue by the Dunkin' Donut shop in West Haven. They first stopped at an Atlantic gas station on the corner of Goodrich Street and Shelton Avenue to fill a gas can which was in the Howell car and then drove to the Orange Avenue Dunkin' Donut shop in West Haven. He transferred the gas to his car, started his car, and returned the gas can to Mrs. Howell. That was the last he saw of her. The defendant stated this was around 10:15 or 10:30 a.m. He said he returned home, went out, came back and went out again. The defendant explained that later that evening he learned that Mrs. Howell had been murdered, and that he went into hiding because he knew he would be blamed. The defendant at all times denied his guilt to the police.

The defendant's account to the police of his activities was contradicted by several witnesses. James Senior saw the defendant on March 1, between 10:30 and 11 a.m., walking away from Dixwell Avenue where the body of Barbara Howell had been discovered. The defendant got into Senior's car and asked Senior to drive him to his car on Winchester Avenue, the street on which Barbara Howell lived. The ride took about three minutes. There had been no reports to the police about a disabled car in front of the Dunkin' Donut shop on Orange Avenue on the night of February 28, 1970.

Neither an employee of Dunkin' Donuts nor the manager of a car wash next door observed a disabled vehicle in the street when he arrived at work early in the morning on Sunday, March 1. Finally, the two men who were working at the gas station where the defendant said he and Barbara Howell had stopped testified that they had not sold gasoline in a gas can to anyone that morning. No gas can was found in the Howell automobile.

It is clear that the defendant's claim that there was insufficient evidence to support a jury verdict is totally without merit. 2

The defendant next claims that the admission into evidence of his fingerprint card denied him due process of law. During testimony by Sergeant James E. McDonald, a state policeman, concerning the fingerprints lifted from the interior of Barbara Howell's automobile, the sergeant identified the defendant's fingerprint card as one 'which was on file at the Bureau of Identification, also C.S.P.I. 227299.' In response to the question, 'What is the C.S.P. number,' Sergeant McDonald stated, 'It is a central bureau for all the criminal arrest records in the State of Connecticut.' The court interrupted with 'Just a moment. I ought to caution this jury at this particular time, that whatever it was, it might have been just a minor matter. I don't know the extent of it. It doesn't affect this case, nor is it introduced for that purpose.'

At defense counsel's request the jury were excused. In the absence...

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