State v. West, No. 16627.

Decision Date26 July 2005
Docket NumberNo. 16627.
Citation274 Conn. 605,877 A.2d 787
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Chasity WEST.

Hope C. Seeley, with whom, on the brief, were Hubert J. Santos, Sandra L. Snaden, Hartford and Patrick S. Bristol, Groton, for the appellant (defendant).

Leon F. Dalbec, Jr., senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were James E. Thomas, state's attorney, Sandra Tullius, senior assistant state's attorney, and Rosita M. Creamer, former senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).




In the early morning hours of July 9, 1998, seven year old Jarrell Cuyler and his two year old sister, Lindsey Cuyler, were asleep in their home on Lovell Avenue in Windsor, where they resided with their mother, Tammi Cuyler, when they were viciously attacked by a masked intruder. Although seriously injured, Lindsey survived her wounds; tragically, Jarrell did not. A week later, the defendant, Chasity West, who is Tammi Cuyler's first cousin, was charged with various crimes in connection with the attack. At the ensuing jury trial, the state adduced powerful evidence of the defendant's guilt, including a motive that is almost as unfathomable as the crimes themselves: the defendant thought that by killing Jarrell and Lindsey, their father, Arnold Cuyler, with whom the defendant was romantically involved, finally might agree to marry the defendant and move out of state with her. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of capital felony in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 53a-54b (9),1 murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a (a), criminal attempt to commit murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) and 53a-54a (a), felony murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54c, two counts of injury to a child in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 53-21(1), assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-59 (a)(1), and burglary in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-101 (a)(1) and (2). The trial court rendered judgment in accordance with the jury verdict and sentenced the defendant to a total effective term of life imprisonment without the possibility of release, plus seventy years.2

On appeal,3 the defendant claims that the trial court improperly: (1) precluded her from introducing evidence of unidentified finger and palm prints that were recovered from the crime scene; (2) permitted the state to introduce expert testimony regarding microscopic hair analysis; (3) precluded her from introducing certain evidence to impeach the state's key witness; (4) denied the defendant's motion for a mistrial based on certain juror misconduct and failed to conduct an adequate hearing with respect to certain other juror misconduct; and (5) instructed the jury concerning the parties' failure to call two prospective witnesses. We reject the defendant's claims and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. In July, 1998, the defendant, a twenty-three year old licensed practical nurse employed at the Cheshire correctional institution, had been involved romantically for almost three years with Arnold Cuyler, Tammi Cuyler's former husband. Their relationship began shortly after Lindsey's birth, in August, 1995, while Arnold and Tammi still were married, and at a time when the defendant, who was approximately seven years younger than Tammi, regularly babysat for Jarrell and Lindsey. Tammi and Arnold separated in the fall of 1995 and divorced in March, 1996. Under the terms of the divorce decree, Arnold, who resided in an apartment in Bristol, had visitation with Jarrell and Lindsey every other weekend and two nights a week. Often, on his scheduled weeknight visits, Arnold would pick up Jarrell from daycare and Lindsey from the babysitter's home, and take them to Tammi's house, where he would care for them until she returned from work. Tammi kept a key to the house in Lindsey's diaper bag with which Arnold could let himself in on those days.

The defendant, who resided with her parents in Windsor, felt deeply threatened by Arnold's continued relationship with Tammi, so much so that, unbeknownst to Arnold, she often followed him to Tammi's house on the days that he took Jarrell and Lindsey there. The defendant would park her car down the street to make sure that Arnold was not "getting too comfortable...." She referred to these excursions as "[m]issions ...." Sometimes, the defendant's teenaged cousins, India Riley and Amber Riley, would go with her, and she would ask them to describe the inside layout of Tammi's house. The defendant also periodically asked Arnold questions about the location of the rooms in Tammi's house. Tammi had purchased the house in August, 1997, after her divorce from Arnold, but, because of the tension between her and the defendant, Tammi never invited the defendant into her house. Indeed, by that time, the defendant's relationship with Arnold had caused tension not only between the defendant and Tammi, but also between the defendant and other members of their large, religious family, many of whom were aware of the defendant's relationship with Arnold and disapproved of it.

Despite her family's disapproval, the defendant desperately wanted to marry Arnold and move out of state with him. Whenever she broached the subject with him, however, he told her that he could never marry her because she was Tammi's cousin and because of the tension in her family. He also told her that he would never move out of state because his children were too important to him to leave them. The defendant grew increasingly angry over Arnold's refusal to marry her and resentful of Jarrell, Lindsey and Tammi, whom she viewed as obstacles to the life that she envisioned for herself with Arnold. Among other things, the defendant was upset about how much money Arnold paid Tammi for child support. Over time, the defendant grew to hate Tammi even though Tammi never harmed the defendant in any way.

The tension in the family escalated in 1998 when Tammi initiated an investigation by the elders of her church into whether Arnold had committed adultery with the defendant while Tammi and Arnold were married. This infuriated the defendant who, around this time, began to plot ways to harm Tammi. In particular, in April or May, 1998, the defendant telephoned Alexis Grajales, the eighteen year old boyfriend of her cousin, India Riley, to tell him about a job opening at the University of Connecticut Health Center. During that conversation, however, the defendant also asked Grajales if he knew anyone who had any knowledge about explosives. He told her no. The defendant called Grajales a number of times over the next several weeks with similar inquiries, among them whether he knew where she could get a gun and whether he knew anyone who would kill someone for money. According to Grajales, the defendant told him that Tammi had been terrorizing her for years and that the defendant needed to "deal" with her. She also told him, however, that, although she wanted to deal with Tammi in some way, she did not want to kill her because, in that event, she would have to take care of Tammi's children.

In late May, 1998, the defendant solicited Grajales' involvement in a plan that the defendant had devised to vandalize Tammi's home. Specifically, the defendant offered to pay Grajales $4000 if he would enter Tammi's home with the defendant and restrain Tammi while the defendant vandalized the home. Grajales agreed. His understanding "was that it was going to be some ... vandalism to scare Tammi, nothing else, [just] mess up the house...."4 In furtherance of the plan, on June 7, 1998, the defendant and Grajales went to a department store in East Hartford and purchased a flashlight and two pairs of navy blue coveralls for use in the burglary. Several days later, on June 11, the defendant asked her cousin, Amber Riley, to go with her to their grandmother's house to see if Tammi's house key was in Lindsey's diaper bag.5 The defendant later told Grajales that she was able to get the key from the bag and make a copy of it.

The defendant and Grajales originally planned to vandalize Tammi's house on July 7, 1998. That evening, however, the defendant called Grajales and told him that she was with Arnold and could not leave.6 While she had Grajales on the telephone, she asked him to buy a "rug cutter ... with a button that lets the blade adjust." Grajales later went out and purchased such a cutter.7

The following evening, July 8, the defendant and Grajales spoke on the telephone, and the defendant advised Grajales that they could go forward with their plan that night. She further indicated that she would contact Grajales when he was to leave his house to meet her.

That same evening, the defendant arrived at Arnold's apartment in Bristol at approximately 8 p.m. After spending the evening there, the defendant left at approximately 12:30 a.m. Between 12:30 a.m. and 1:10 a.m., the defendant called Grajales six times on her cellular telephone while driving from Bristol to Windsor to meet him. During one of the calls, she told him not to forget the coveralls, the cutter and the flashlight. She also told him to bring an empty container, such as a soda bottle. The defendant assured Grajales that Lindsey and Jarrell would not be at home because they were spending the night with their grandmother. Grajales met the defendant at a shopping plaza in Windsor, as planned.8 They then proceeded in separate cars to a nearby service station where Grajales produced a two liter soda bottle that they filled with gasoline.9 Because the bottle had no cap, they placed a cookie wrapper in the opening of the bottle to keep the gasoline from spilling. A video surveillance camera...

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