Judicial District of New Haven


Criminal; Jurors; Evidence; Prosecutorial Misconduct; Whether Trial Court Improperly Failed to Act after Observing Juror Asleep; Whether Evidence of Witnesses' Participation in Witness Protection Programs and of Coconspirator's Guilty Plea Were Improperly Admitted; Whether Prosecutor Improperly Commented on Defendant's Right to Jury Trial. The defendant was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and two firearm offenses arising out of the shooting death of Gino Rodriguez in a hotel parking lot in Meriden. On the night of the shooting, Manasia Bennett and Freddy Hidalgo were dropped off at the hotel by Bennett's mother, Cheenisa Rivera and a man known as "Wolf." At trial, Hidalgo identified the defendant as Wolf and testified that, when he saw Rodriguez outside of the hotel, he told Bennett to call Rivera and warn her not to return because Rodgriguez and the defendant were rival gang members and he was concerned about a potential altercation. Rivera also testified for the state, pursuant to a cooperation agreement whereby she agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to murder Rodriguez in exchange for a fifteen-year prison sentence and the nollying of charges pending against her in several unrelated cases. She testified that, on the day of the shooting, she had asked Loretta Martin to book hotel rooms for her, the defendant, Bennett, and Hidalgo and that the defendant was in the car with Rivera when she dropped off Bennett and Hidalgo at the hotel. Martin, who also testified pursuant to a cooperation agreement, confirmed that she had booked the hotel rooms in exchange for crack. According to Rivera, as she began pulling out of the parking lot, the defendant suddenly fired a gun out of the passenger side window, killing Rodriguez. During a recess on the first day of trial, the court noted that one of the jurors appeared to have been sleeping earlier in the day and advised defense counsel to monitor the juror for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, the prosecutor remarked that the juror had again been asleep during testimony, and defense counsel concurred that the juror had appeared to be nodding off. The court ultimately decided not to take any action after defense counsel voiced concern that removing the juror would alter the racial composition of the jury. The jury subsequently convicted the defendant of murder and the firearm offenses, and the court sentenced him to sixty-five years in prison. The defendant now appeals directly to our Supreme Court pursuant to General Statutes 51-199 (b) (3). The defendant first claims that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to take any action to determine whether the sleeping juror was competent to remain on the jury. The defendant next claims that the court improperly permitted the state to elicit testimony on direct examination that Rivera's family and Martin had been placed in witness protection programs, where the defense had not opened the door to such questioning. He also claims that the court erroneously admitted, as substantive evidence of the defendant's guilt, Rivera's testimony that she had pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Finally, the defendant claims that his constitutional and statutory rights to a jury trial were violated when the prosecutor remarked during closing arguments that Rivera had taken responsibility for her actions by pleading guilty to conspiracy, which, in the defendant's view, improperly suggested to the jury that he should have likewise waived his right to a trial and pleaded guilty.