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State v. Soler

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

July 12, 2016

State
v.
Juan Soler.

         Providence County Superior Court (P2/05-3230A) Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice.

          For State: Christopher R. Bush Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Kara J. Maguire Office of the Public Defender

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

          OPINION

          PAUL A. SUTTELL CHIEF JUSTICE.

         The defendant, Juan Soler, appeals from his convictions for assault with a dangerous weapon and vandalism. He argues that the trial justice erred by refusing to include a self-defense instruction in the jury charge. We agree; and, for the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the defendant's conviction for felony assault.

         I Facts and Procedural History

         On September 5, 2005, an altercation occurred on Pine Street in Central Falls between defendant, his cousins Roy and Lauriz[1] Morillo, and the complaining witness, Anstrom Paula.[2]Everyone involved in the incident knew each other well; defendant and his cousins had met Paula years earlier when Paula started dating one of their other cousins, Felicia Garcia. Paula and Garcia had a child together, became engaged, and lived together for a period of time before the relationship ended. By September 5, 2005, Paula had been dating Garcia's sister, Amanda

         Perez; this relationship had been kept secret from her family, however, until Perez's mother and sister found out about it the day before the altercation occurred. On the night of September 4, Perez and Paula slept at a friend's house. Paula drove Perez home around noon on September 5, dropping her off a short distance from her home. Before Paula had pulled away from the curb, defendant, the Morillo brothers, and a friend drove up beside Paula's automobile, and the altercation immediately began. Several minutes later, Paula was bleeding from his head and had sustained injuries to his neck, back, right elbow, and right leg. In addition, several windows of Paula's Honda had been broken.

         On October 27, 2005, defendant was charged by information with two counts of felony assault pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 11-5-2[3] and one count of vandalism pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 11-44-1.[4] The criminal information alleged that defendant had assaulted Paula with two dangerous weapons (a baseball bat in count 1 and a shod foot in count 2) and that defendant had willfully or maliciously vandalized Paula's vehicle (count 3). A jury trial was held in May 2006, at which the witnesses for the prosecution and the witnesses for the defense presented drastically different versions of what had transpired during the altercation.

         According to Paula, as he pulled his car over to the curb about a block away from Perez's house to let her out, a red car stopped in front of him. Paula testified that, while he was still sitting in the driver's seat of his car, defendant emerged from the red car and, without speaking a word, punched him, then retrieved a red baseball bat from the red car and started hitting Paula's car with the bat, breaking several windows. Paula "threw [him]self through the side window" of his car, and then defendant began hitting him on his head, back, and knee with the bat. Paula specifically denied ever having a knife in his possession during the confrontation. Paula testified that the assault lasted seven or ten minutes.

         Perez's testimony about the incident paralleled Paula's. She recalled that, as Paula was dropping her off, a car full of her cousins and a family friend pulled up to Paula's car. Perez testified that defendant immediately got out of his car, punched Paula in the face, then started smashing Paula's car windows with a bat. Perez had already exited the vehicle before defendant began smashing the windows of Paula's Honda. Perez also testified that Paula jumped out of the open front passenger window of his car, that defendant hit Paula more than eight times with the bat, and that the attack lasted more than five minutes. She also denied that Paula brandished a knife during the incident. In addition, Perez admitted that her family was angry about her relationship with Paula and that her mother may have been worried about her when she had not returned home the previous evening because she had not called her mother that night.

         Lauriz Morillo, a New York resident, testified as a defense witness that he had been in Central Falls on September 5 to help his aunt-Perez's mother-move to New York. Morillo testified that he, his brother Roy, and his cousin had been on their way to a barbershop when he saw Paula and Perez in a car near his aunt's house. Morillo stated that he had been worried about Perez because he knew that she had not returned home to sleep the night before; he added that he was not happy that Perez and Paula were dating. According to Morillo, when defendant pulled over near Paula's car, Morillo asked Perez if she was all right and Paula told him to mind his own business. Morillo testified that, as he started to walk Perez home, Paula was arguing with him, his brother, and defendant, and that Paula pulled out a knife. Morillo also testified that his brother retrieved a baseball bat from their car. According to Morillo, Paula "was attacking [his brother] with the knife like he was going to stab him"; Paula also swung the knife at defendant, who "put his hand up and [backed] away from [Paula]."

         Morillo further testified that his brother dropped the bat and backed away; then defendant grabbed it off the ground and moved it around in a sweeping motion. Morillo demonstrated for the jury how Paula had been jabbing with the knife while defendant had swept the bat back and forth. Significantly, Morillo testified that he observed the bat and knife collide. Morillo stated that he then watched Paula move backwards, trip over the curb, drop the knife, and hit his head on the concrete. (Conversely, Paula had denied falling over a sidewalk curb or hitting his head on the concrete.) According to Morillo, he then kicked the knife away from where Paula had fallen while defendant dropped the bat and left the area.[5] Morillo testified that Paula stood up and "put his fist on [him], " and that he defended himself by striking Paula "in the face a couple of times" and "in the stomach." Morillo further testified that defendant's "sweeping" motion with the bat broke the windows on Paula's car. According to Morillo, defendant did not strike Paula with the bat at any time.

         The jury also heard testimony from one eyewitness who, while in his apartment on Pine Street at noon on September 5, 2005, observed three men attacking a woman and a man with a baseball bat. This eyewitness testified that he asked his wife to call the police and that he then went outside to stop the attack. The eyewitness stated that the only weapon he saw was the bat and that he had observed the bat complete "two blows, " one to a person's shoulder and one to a ribcage.

         On the fifth day of trial, defendant did not appear and his attorney was unable to locate him. Before the trial proceeded to closing arguments, the trial justice considered the state's motion to preclude defendant from arguing self-defense during his closing argument-a motion that ultimately evolved into arguments regarding a self-defense jury instruction. The trial justice ruled that she would not instruct the jury on self-defense and that defendant would not be allowed to mention self-defense in his closing argument. After deliberations, the jury found defendant guilty of felony assault with a bat and vandalism, but acquitted defendant of felony assault with a shod foot. Counsel for defendant timely filed a motion for new trial, which was heard and denied nearly seven years later on March 5, 2013, after defendant had been arrested in Massachusetts and extradited to Rhode Island. On April 30, 2013, the trial justice sentenced defendant to a ten-year term of incarceration, with three years to serve and seven years suspended, with probation, for the felony assault conviction, and a one-year suspended term of incarceration on the conviction for vandalism, to run concurrently with the assault sentence.

         In his appeal from the judgment of conviction, defendant argues that the trial justice erred when she granted the state's motion to preclude defendant from discussing self-defense in his closing argument and by refusing to instruct the jury on the law of self-defense. This case initially came before us pursuant to an order directing the parties to show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After oral argument we concluded that this Court would benefit from additional briefing and argument, and we reassigned this case to the full argument calendar.

         II Standard of Review

         "This Court conducts a de novo review of a trial justice's refusal to instruct the jury on self-defense." State v. Pineda, 13 A.3d 623, 631 (R.I. 2011). "If the trial justice 'concludes that the requested instruction is not applicable, the effect of the defendant's exception to such ruling is to require this [C]ourt to independently review the evidence and determine whether the trial justice's concept [on self-defense] was correct.'" Id. (quoting State v. Butler, 107 R.I. 489, 491, 268 A.2d 433, 434 (1970)). "In so doing, we examine the record in a light most favorable to the defendant." Id. "[W]e will affirm if the instructions adequately cover[ed] the law and neither reduce[d] nor shift[ed] the state's burden of proof." State v. Martin, 68 A.3d 467, 473 (R.I. 2013) (quoting State v. Lopez, 45 A.3d 1, 22 (R.I. 2012)).

         III Discussion

         A Waiver

         Before we reach the merits of defendant's claims of error by the trial justice, we must address the state's contention that defendant has failed to adequately preserve the self-defense jury-instruction issue for review by this Court. The state's argument that defendant has waived appellate review of this issue is two-fold; first, the state argues that defendant waived the issue by not objecting to the omission of the self-defense instruction at the end of the actual jury charge, especially because, at the conclusion of the charge, the trial justice specifically inquired whether either party had exceptions to the charge as given and defendant's counsel replied in the negative. Second, the state asserts that, prior to the charge, defendant's argument that a self-defense instruction was warranted did not specify that there was sufficient evidence of assault as opposed to battery to require the self-defense instruction. According to the state, the trial justice therefore did not have the opportunity to consider whether ...


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