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State v. Lopez

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 6, 2016

Jose Lopez.

         Providence County Superior Court (P1/14-1482AG) Robert D. Krause Associate Justice

          For State: Virginia M. McGinn Department of Attorney General

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

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


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on October 26, 2016, on appeal by the defendant, Jose Lopez (defendant or Lopez), from judgments of conviction entered in the Superior Court, following a jury trial. Lopez was convicted of murder in the first degree, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, and conspiracy to commit murder. Lopez, who was a juvenile at the time of the murder, was acquitted of one count of carrying a firearm without a license.[1]

         Before this Court, Lopez contends that the trial justice erred by denying his motion for a new trial. Specifically, he argues that the trial justice overlooked and misconstrued material evidence and that the weight of the evidence did not support the verdicts in this case in light of the bias and interests of the state's witnesses. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgments of conviction.

         Facts and Travel

         On Christmas Eve 2013, twenty-one-year-old Ryan Almeida (Almeida) was murdered outside his mother's home at The Galego Court housing project (the Manor) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The facts and circumstances leading up to this homicide portray a vengeful and violent gang feud between the "Chad Brown" and the "East Side" street gangs. Jason "Heavy" Gonzalez (Gonzalez), Daquan Watts (Watts), and Lopez are members of the Chad Brown gang, and the decedent was an alleged member of the rival East Side gang. Although the intense antagonism between the two gangs is deeply rooted, the animosity escalated in June 2013 when Lopez's cousin, Jose "Hova" Sanchez, was murdered, allegedly by members of the East Side gang.

         The facts of this case are chilling. In the early morning hours of December 24, 2013, Gonzalez, Watts, and Lopez "went for a ride" to the East Side of Providence "[t]o see if [they could] see anybody from that side of town." They drove up Pleasant Street, down Camp Street, and down Doyle Avenue, looking for enemies to shoot, to no avail, when Watts suggested that they go to the Manor and look for Almeida. After driving past the guard shack at the Manor, Watts directed them to the back of the Manor, where he knew Almeida lived with his mother. Gonzalez and Watts noticed a black car with its engine running and its lights on. Although the vehicle appeared to be unoccupied, there were two occupants in the car-Janelle Lewis (Lewis) and her boyfriend. Lewis, an eyewitness to the murder, testified at trial. Her testimony corroborated the testimony of Gonzalez and Watts and supported their accounts that Lopez was the shooter. After noticing Lewis's vehicle, the Chad Brown gang proceeded out of the Manor and parked on a side street across from the complex.

         According to both Gonzalez and Watts, Gonzalez got out of the car and asked for the gun but Lopez objected, declaring that he "wanted to do it." Watts and Gonzalez watched as Lopez pulled a gun out of his shoe and put it in the pocket of his gray hooded sweatshirt. Lopez asked Watts to accompany him because Watts knew his way around the Manor; Gonzalez remained in the car. Watts and Lopez tightened the hoods of their sweatshirts and proceeded into the Manor toward Almeida's apartment. According to Watts, Almeida was coming out of his home when Lopez pulled out the gun, aimed, and fired. Watts heard a total of five gunshots. As Almeida fell to the ground, Lopez and Watts ran back to the car where Watts told Gonzalez that it was Almeida who was coming out of the house, and that "[Lopez] had got him." Watts added, "I heard [Almeida] scream. I think he got hit five times." Lopez agreed, stating, "I think I hit him." The gunshots awakened Almeida's mother, who ran to the door and saw her son lying on the ground outside, bleeding from his abdomen. In his final moments, Almeida worried for his mother, stating, "Ma, don't run out here. I think they're still out here." Almeida died of a gunshot wound to the torso; the manner of death was homicide. It was Christmas Eve morning.

         The defendant testified at trial and contested this version of events. According to Lopez, it was he who was driving the car that evening, a white Toyota Solara that he had borrowed from his friend, Nathaniel Robinson (Robinson). After Lopez picked up Watts, Gonzalez, and Tyron Wilcox (Wilcox), Watts suggested that they drive to the East Side to look for rival gang members. Lopez agreed because it was the East Side gang that had killed his cousin, but he stated: "I'm not shooting nobody or nothing." Lopez testified that he did not want to "put [Robinson's] car in a situation." As they were driving to the East Side, Wilcox asked to be taken home to his house in the Manor to "get something." When they reached the Manor, Lopez drove past the guard shack, circled around, and exited the complex. He parked across the street, as instructed by Watts. Notably, Lopez claimed that he did not notice a black car with its lights on parked in the back of the Manor because he "wasn't paying attention."

         Lopez testified that Watts and Wilcox got out of the Solara, donned their hoodies, and walked toward the Manor without speaking a word. Lopez testified that he did not see a gun, and did not know where Watts and Wilcox were going because he "wasn't paying attention." When the men returned to the vehicle, about five minutes later, Lopez asked, "What the hell. What's going on?" Lopez claimed that neither man responded, but that he saw Watts hand something to Gonzalez. He could not identify the item because he "wasn't paying attention." Also, he did not learn of the shooting until the next day, when he watched the news. Lopez averred that he later spoke with Watts, who confirmed that he was the shooter.

         Although the events leading up to the shooting were disputed by the witnesses at trial, it was uncontested that Lopez was the first member of the group to speak with the police in the aftermath of the shooting. However, defendant's version of the events did not support the facts uncovered by the detectives during their investigation, including the facts disclosed by Lewis, whose physical description of the shooter matched that of Lopez. Lopez was arrested on April 4, 2014, after the detectives secured an arrest warrant based on surveillance images captured by a camera on the guard shack of the Manor. The images depict the Toyota Solara entering into the complex in the early morning hours of December 24, 2013; based on the images, the police traced the vehicle to Lopez. After an ...

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