Providence County Superior Court. (P1/12-1521AG). Associate Justice Robert D. Krause.
For State: Lauren S. Zurier, Department of Attorney General.
For Defendant: Lara E. Montecalvo, Office of the Public Defender.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
The defendant, Victor Arciliares, appeals from a judgment of conviction entered after a jury trial in Providence County Superior Court. The defendant was found guilty of five offenses, most notably murder in the first degree of Alfredo Barros, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-23-1. This case came before the Supreme Court for argument on October 29, 2014. The defendant contends that the trial justice erred when he curtailed the extent to which the defendant was allowed to cross-examine a key police witness. The defendant claims that the exclusion of the proffered evidence was reversible error and merits a new trial. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we agree, vacate the defendant's convictions, and remand the case to the Superior Court for a new trial.
Facts and Travel
On October 30, 2010, at about 3 a.m., Alfredo " Pauly" Barros was shot and killed
as he sat behind the wheel of a motor vehicle at a Pawtucket intersection. In Barros's car were two passengers, one of whom, Ruben Gomes, was injured in the shooting. That night, during the course of their investigation, Pawtucket police discovered several shell casings at the intersection of George and Marrin Streets, but they recovered no weapon, nor was any weapon ever presented at trial. The passengers in Barros's car each gave statements to police. Each of them mentioned a black BMW from which shots were fired. However, as was the case with the weapon, that vehicle was never located.
The homicide investigation soon focused on a Shell gas station on Thurbers Avenue in Providence, because police had obtained information that Barros and his passengers may have been involved in an " altercation" there earlier that evening. The investigation dragged out over several months, but by June 2011, eight months later, no arrests had been made. However, a break in the case finally arose when the lead detective, Det. Richard LaForest, received a call from an investigator at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) informing him that an inmate had information about the Barros murder. Ultimately, that jailhouse informant would provide information that would implicate defendant as the shooter in the October 30, 2010 murder.
Indictment and Trial
On May 30, 2012, after hearing testimony from the informant, a grand jury returned a seven-count indictment arising out of the shooting. The six counts against defendant were counts: (1) murder in the first degree of Alfredo Barros, in violation of § 11-23-1; (2) discharging a firearm while committing a violent crime, the murder of Alfredo Barros, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-47-3.2; (3) discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle in a manner that created a substantial risk of death to Ruben Gomes, in violation of § 11-47-51.1; (4) assault with intent to murder Ruben Gomes, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-5-1; (5) use of a firearm in the attempted commission of a violent crime resulting in an injury to Ruben Gomes, in violation of § 11-47-3.2; and (7) conspiracy to do an unlawful act, to wit, murder, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-1-6.
On January 17, 2013, a jury trial began before a justice of the Superior Court. The state called Dr. Priya Banerjee, an Assistant Medical Examiner, who testified that the manner of death was homicide by gunshot wounds. In her testimony, the medical examiner made use of a number of autopsy photographs. One image was a color photograph that depicted the dissected heart and lungs of the victim. The defendant objected to this photograph. At sidebar, defense counsel called the photograph " really, really gruesome," and said, " the only purpose for bringing [it] in is to inflame and to prejudice the jury unnecessarily." The state argued that the photograph was necessary to show the trajectory of the bullet and to prove there was only one shooter involved. The trial justice found the state's argument convincing and said, " [a]s far as autopsy photographs
are concerned, I would suggest to you this one is pretty tame, and I'm going to overrule the objection." The photograph entered evidence as trial exhibit No. 19.
The state also presented the testimony of several witnesses who had been present at the scene of the Barros murder. Those witnesses included Ptlm. Justin Gould of the Pawtucket Police Department, as well as Ruben Gomes and Jason DaCruz, the two passengers in Barros's car. Lastly, the state presented the core of its case; the testimony of Det. LaForest and Raymond Baccaire, the cooperating witness, who recounted defendant's alleged jailhouse confession. The defendant alleges that it was during the testimony of Det. LaForest that the error of law occurred.
Detective LaForest's Testimony
Detective LaForest was called to the scene of the Barros murder early on that October morning and was in charge of the investigation that followed. In that investigation, Det. LaForest visited the Thurbers Avenue Shell station, from which Barros's car had traveled, seeking video surveillance footage from the night of the murder. Detective LaForest went to retrieve the video because he had received information that " there was an altercation with the deceased at that Shell station." Detective LaForest testified that the video showed that there had been between 50 and 100 people at the Shell station that night, including three Providence police officers who had responded to an earlier fight that did not involve Barros or his passengers. Detective LaForest testified that, when he culled the video, he was able to confirm that defendant was among the crowd at the Shell station that evening. The state later introduced at trial a photograph of defendant from that video. The detective said he was familiar with defendant's appearance because he had been " in the presence of [defendant]," on May 17, 2011. Another photograph from that evening showed defendant standing outside at the gas pumps with a man named Rolando Rojas and another man. A third photograph showed Rojas getting into a black BMW automobile, but that picture did not include either defendant or the third man from the earlier picture.
Detective LaForest then testified about his meeting with Raymond Baccaire, the cellmate of defendant, who contended that defendant had admitted to him that he was the shooter in the Barros murder. That meeting was prompted by information Det. LaForest had received from ACI Special Investigator Nuno Figueiredo. Investigator Figueiredo relayed to Det. LaForest that Baccaire had information about a homicide. Detective LaForest denied that he had revealed to Investigator Figueiredo anything beyond " just the basic" facts of the Barros murder. Detective LaForest's meeting with Baccaire occurred on June 7, 2011, and, until that time, the investigation was simply " ongoing," and no arrests had been made.
On cross-examination, Det. LaForest admitted that in his review of the gas station video, he did not see any " altercation" between the ...