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State v. Garcia

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

July 7, 2016

State
v.
Armando Garcia.

         SOURCE OF APPEAL: Providence County Superior Court (P1/10-3732A), Susan E. McGuirl Associate Justice.

         ATTORNEYS ON APPEAL:

          For State: Lauren S. Zurier Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Megan F. Jackson Office of the Public Defender

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Justice.

         This case stems from the gruesome murder of a young mother in her home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. After a jury trial, the defendant, Armando Garcia, was convicted of one count of first-degree murder, one count of failure to report a death, and one count of operating a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner. The trial justice sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment on the murder count and imposed a five-year sentence for each of the remaining counts, to be served concurrently with each other and consecutively with the life sentence.[1] On appeal, the defendant assigns error to the denial of his motion to suppress the confession he made to the police, certain evidentiary rulings made at trial, and the denial of his motion for a new trial. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         Brooke[2] and defendant were friends in junior high school, and, by high school their relationship developed into what defendant later characterized as "friends with benefits"- presumably of the romantic kind. As they reached adulthood, the two went their separate ways. Brooke married Joe in 2002, and, in 2007, their daughter, Ella, was born. Brooke became a stay-at-home mom and sold Avon products in her spare time. As Brooke was building her life with Joe, defendant was in and out of jail, serving time at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) for multiple convictions, including possession of a stolen motor vehicle, breaking and entering, and drug possession.

         In late 2009, shortly after being released from his most recent stint at the ACI, defendant visited the home of Brooke's mother and stepfather, Michelle and Roy, and arranged for Brooke to contact him in order to renew their acquaintance. She did so, and the old friends soon began to spend a substantial amount of time together. The defendant's re-entry into Brooke's life coincided with the deterioration of her previously happy seven-year marriage. Her relationship with Joe became fraught with tension as he began to suspect an affair. By mid-May 2010, Brooke told Joe that she no longer loved him. He moved out in mid-June. Meanwhile, Brooke and defendant discussed moving in together. She spent time with his family, and he introduced her to his relatives as his girlfriend.

         Interactions between Brooke and Joe remained hostile even after Joe moved out of the house. In particular, on Monday, June 21, when Joe arrived at the house to pick up two-year-old Ella, he argued with Brooke about the nature of her relationship with defendant; Brooke continued to insist that they were only friends, even after Joe had discovered photographs suggesting otherwise. According to Joe, during the argument, Brooke "struck [him] multiple times." In order to subdue her during these outbursts, Joe claims to have "grabbed her * * * [and] moved her to the side onto a chair." Later that day, Brooke told Michelle that she and Joe "got into a scuffle and he pushed her down the stairs." She showed Michelle "a red mark on her * * * right side." At trial, Joe denied pushing her down the stairs.

         Despite their quarrel earlier in the week, Brooke and Joe were cordial to each other when they met on Wednesday, June 23, and even decided to attend a wedding together-as friends- that Saturday night. The next night, Thursday, June 24, Brooke and Joe had sex, and he spent the night at the house. According to Joe, who continued to love his wife, "It felt like we were married again." Also that night, Brooke told her mother and a friend that "she was done with" defendant because she had learned that he was selling cocaine and she wanted to protect Ella.

         Brooke's plans to break up with defendant were short-lived, however. On Friday night, June 25, Brooke told her mother that she had decided to "giv[e] [defendant] another chance" and that she and Ella were going to spend the evening with him. However, when Brooke arrived at defendant's home as planned, there was a note on the door informing her that defendant was out with his cousin. This was not the case. A furious Brooke called her mother and declared, "I can't believe that [f---ing] [racial epithet] stood me up." Brooke told Michelle that she intended to leave him a letter. In fact, defendant was in his home and could hear her in the driveway cursing him and using a racial slur.

         An hour later, Brooke told her mother that she was waiting for defendant to come to her house. When Michelle told her daughter that she had been watching a true-crime show on television, Brooke mentioned that defendant had told her to tell her mother that, "if you ever find me dead, Joe thinks about ways to kill me and get away with it." That was the last time Michelle spoke with her daughter.

         The next morning, Saturday, June 26, Michelle, who was scheduled to babysit Ella that afternoon, attempted to call Brooke multiple times, but there was no answer. By mid-afternoon, an alarmed Michelle drove to Brooke's home and noted that Brooke's Cadillac Escalade was not in the driveway. She observed a window screen, which usually covered the window over the air conditioner, lying against the side of the house. Entering the house through the kitchen, she discovered the home in disarray. All of the cabinets were open, and items "were thrown or tossed around the room." Michelle saw a note on the counter that was addressed to defendant: "You [t]old me [y]ou would be right back[.] It [d]on't [t]ake over an [h]our [t]o [g]o 2 [b]locks[.] This night is almost exactly [l]ike Monday[.] I'll [t]alk [t]o you [l]ater[.]" A knife also lay on the counter.

         In the dining room, Michelle found a butter knife lying on the floor near "a big pool of blood, " as well as blood in other areas in the room. Intending to call 9-1-1, Michelle reached for the landline telephone, but it was missing. Brooke's two mobile telephones also were not in the house.[3] Michelle heard Ella call out to her from Brooke's bedroom.

         Michelle found Ella, in a soiled diaper, sitting on the bed next to her mother's lifeless body.[4] Brooke was partially naked under a blanket. Her pants were tied in a knot near her ankles. There was a bottle of K-Y Jelly on the bed near Brooke's head and a bloody tampon on the floor. On the bureau sat a condom wrapper covered with dried blood, but no condom. In a frantic call to 9-1-1 from her mobile telephone, Michelle told the operator that she had found her daughter dead, and, based on what Brooke had told her the previous evening, that she believed Joe had murdered his wife. Michelle repeated the allegation when the police arrived.

         Meanwhile, Joe had been trying to contact Brooke without success about their plans to attend their friend's wedding that evening. Joe received a text message from a coworker informing him that emergency vehicles were parked by the house, and, still unable to reach Brooke, he drove to the home. When he arrived, Michelle identified Joe to the police, and he immediately was arrested. At the police station, detectives interrogated him until late into the night. Fervidly protesting his innocence, Joe consented to searches of his car and apartment. Neither search yielded anything. By the next day, having corroborated Joe's statements to the police concerning his recent whereabouts, Joe was released.[5]

         While Joe was in custody, the police received an anonymous tip that led them to Brooke's missing car. The tip came from Blanca Mateo-Merced (Mateo-Merced), defendant's sixteen-year-old cousin. Early Saturday morning, defendant had visited the home Mateo-Merced shared with their grandmother and told them that "[t]hey killed my baby." He explained that he had arrived at Brooke's home and "found her lying in a pool of blood." Also that morning, defendant asked a family friend who runs a car-cleaning service to clean the Cadillac Escalade he was driving. The defendant explained that he had been in a fight after "[getting] caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time." The friend observed blood in the interior of the car, which he thought was defendant's because defendant had blood on his ear and his clothing. After the vehicle was cleaned, the friend parked it on Dodge Street in Pawtucket, at defendant's request. Forensic testing subsequently revealed that residual blood in the car was consistent with DNA from Brooke, not defendant.

         Meanwhile, defendant told more relatives and another family friend that Brooke had been killed; he explained that Brooke died from a gunshot wound and that the bullet entered the house through a window. The family pleaded with defendant to report Brooke's death to the police, but to no avail; he refused to come forward because he was on probation and feared being falsely accused of the murder. He revealed to Mateo-Merced that he was contemplating going to Pennsylvania, and he asked his father for money. Later in the day, Mateo-Merced and other relatives discovered the Cadillac Escalade parked on Dodge Street, and, when confronted, defendant admitted that the car belonged to Brooke. While Mateo-Merced spoke with defendant, she noticed a small bloodstain on his shorts.[6] When she watched the 10 p.m. news that evening, Mateo-Merced learned that the police were looking for Brooke's car. She called the police from a pay phone and, without giving her name, told them where to find the vehicle.

         When the police discovered Brooke's relationship with defendant, they visited his last known address. The defendant was not home, but his father answered the door and informed the officers that defendant had admitted to him that he found Brooke dead in her home.

         In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 27, defendant was arrested at his grandmother's home. While being handcuffed, defendant asked, "Is this about Brooke?" When a detective responded affirmatively, defendant volunteered, "I loved her. I would never do anything to hurt that girl." At the station, police observed a cut on defendant's hand, a scratch on his thigh, and a wound on his ear.

         At approximately 3:25 a.m., at the Pawtucket police station, Dets. Donti Rosciti (Det. Rosciti) and David Silva (Det. Silva) commenced a nine-hour interview with defendant, in which defendant waived his Miranda[7] rights. The defendant initially denied any involvement in Brooke's murder. He stated that he and Brooke had sex at her house on Friday evening and that he then borrowed her car and left for the night. After defendant documented this story in a formal handwritten statement, the detectives advised him that his father had disclosed that defendant had discovered Brooke's body. The defendant then proceeded to expand upon his statement; he claimed to have returned to Brooke's home after leaving the first time, found her dead in her bedroom, and fled out of fear that he would be implicated. He memorialized this new version of his story in a second handwritten statement.

         During the interview, defendant learned that, because he was on probation for another offense, he would be presented in the District Court as a probation violator. The defendant stated, without prompting, that he preferred to delay transfer to the ACI and stay at the police station overnight. The defendant signed a document-prepared by the detectives-in which he "agree[d] to remain in the custody of the ...


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