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State v. Adams

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 19, 2017

State
v.
James Adams.

         Providence County Superior Court P1/13-3713AG Robert D. Krause Associate Justice.

          For State: Aaron L. Weisman, Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Jodi M. Gladstone, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         The defendant, James Adams, appeals from a judgment of conviction of one count of first-degree robbery, two counts of felony assault, one count of second-degree murder, and one count of committing a crime of violence while possessing a firearm. These charges stemmed from allegations that the defendant, during June and July 2012, accessed Backpage.com[1] for escort services and had female escorts meet him at his designated location, where he then committed the above-referenced crimes. Following the jury's guilty verdict, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, which was heard and denied by a justice of the Superior Court. On appeal, the defendant maintains that he is entitled to a new trial because the weight of the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that the trial justice erred in deciding otherwise. The defendant also appeals the admission of certain evidence relating to cell phone data and analysis that was introduced at trial, which he claims should have been excluded by the trial justice. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         A

         Initial Murder Investigation

         On July 20, 2012, Patrolman Jared Hardy of the Cranston Police Department responded to the area of 391 Farmington Avenue in Cranston (the property), a three-family home with "a detached garage to the left rear" (the garage). Patrolman Hardy was dispatched in connection with a report of "an oozing liquid which was coming out of the garage" that had a "bad smell." Upon entering the garage he "was struck with the smell of decaying flesh, " and he determined that the smell was emanating "from the back left corner of the garage." Upon walking to the back left corner and tipping a green sofa over to identify the source of the smell, Hardy found a badly decayed body of what appeared to be an African-American female (the decedent). Hardy immediately called for a supervisor and secured the scene.

         Detective William John Palmer of the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) unit[2] of the Cranston Police Department was called into work to investigate this matter. Upon arriving at the property with another BCI detective, Peter Souza, Det. Palmer observed "a dark colored stain that appeared to be coming from the * * * garage['s] * * * east side wall." Upon entering the garage, he witnessed the tipped-over green sofa and the decomposing body of the decedent. He described the garage as cluttered and with the appearance that it was used for storage and "for people hanging out."

         Detective Souza took several photographs of both the inside and outside of the garage and of the decedent's body. Detective Palmer also photographed "contents that were at [the decedent's] feet that appeared to be dumped there, " and he observed a tan pocketbook and a green piece of clothing-later identified as a jumper. He identified several other items found by the decedent's feet, including a cell phone charger, lotion, earphones, a Massachusetts identification card, and a black wig. Under the black wig, he discovered a body spray, Vaseline petroleum jelly, a couple of debit cards belonging to one Mary Grier, and a pair of size medium Joe Boxer underwear.

         Detective Sergeant Michael Hollis Gates of the Cranston Police Department, who had also responded to the property that day, was given the Massachusetts identification card, but he could not identify the decedent in the garage due to the extensive decomposition of the body. Detective Gates testified that the name on the identification card was Mary Grier. On the next day, July 21, he, along with another detective, "follow[ed] up with the address that [they] had on the identification that was recovered next to the body." That address was in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where they met with Leslie and Jeanetta Trotman (the Trotmans), Grier's foster parents.[3] They indicated to the detectives that they believed Grier had been working at Foxy Lady, an adult entertainment club in Providence, and they also provided the detectives with the address of Regina Grier, Grier's adoptive mother.[4] Detective Gates went to Foxy Lady to follow up on the information he had received from the Trotmans, and he learned that Grier "hadn't been working there recently."

         The following day, July 22, Det. Gates met with Jesse Adams, defendant's brother. According to Jesse Adams, in June 2012, defendant lived in the garage.[5] Following the meeting with Jesse Adams, Det. Gates asked that a photo array be prepared containing defendant's image and that defendant's parole officer be contacted to ascertain defendant's whereabouts. That same day, after having become confident that the decedent was Grier, Det. Gates returned to Dorchester to inform both sets of parents that Grier had passed away. Detective Gates obtained Grier's cell phone number, and a fellow detective prepared search warrants for certain cell phone records. Subsequently, Det. Gates secured an arrest warrant for defendant.

         On July 23, 2012, Det. Gates interviewed Jessica Dyer after "[he] was given information that there may have been a second female present at * * * [the] garage * * * the night that [they] believe[d] * * * Grier was murdered." Dyer alleged that she had been assaulted by a man in the same garage on June 30, 2012. Detective Gates conducted a photo array with six photos of males who had the same general characteristics as defendant. Dyer identified defendant as her assailant.[6]

         On July 24, the detectives learned of defendant's whereabouts and proceeded to the Charlesgate Manor apartment complex in Providence to execute an arrest warrant. Detective Jaime Cahill of the Cranston Police Department testified that he entered a building in the apartment complex and waited for defendant by the elevators with other officers. Realizing that defendant did not come off of the elevator, Det. Cahill rushed outside the building and observed defendant "running through the parking lot." He further observed defendant discard a backpack, "which another detective secured, " while another detective tackled defendant.

         Detective Souza testified that he was called to the location of the arrest to collect a "red and black backpack, a couple of bottles of beer, [a] bottle of water, * * * and an Airsoft pistol." As part of the investigation, he test-fired the pistol found in the backpack and confirmed that this "pistol [was] an operable firearm" that was capable of firing plastic and metal projectiles.

         On July 26, Evonna Malave, who had previously reported to the police that, on June 24, 2012, she had been sexually assaulted and robbed by a man on School Street in Johnston, went to the Johnston Police Department, where she gave a statement and identified defendant as her assailant.[7]

         On December 6, 2013, defendant was charged by criminal indictment with the murder of Grier (count 1), two counts of felony assault upon Dyer (counts 2 and 3), two counts of committing a crime of violence while in possession of a firearm (counts 4 and 11), two counts of first-degree sexual assault upon Malave (counts 8 and 9), first-degree robbery of Malave (count 10), and unlawful possession of a firearm (count 12).[8] These counts were the subject of a ten-day jury trial, during which a total of twenty-eight witnesses testified. These witnesses included the detectives involved in the investigation, forensic and cell phone data experts, the two complaining witnesses, and several individuals who knew defendant in 2012.

         B

         Forensic Analysis

         Doctor Carolyn Revercomb, a former assistant medical examiner at the Office of State Medical Examiners for Rhode Island, testified about the forensic autopsy that she conducted on the decedent in July 2012. She explained that the decedent was identified through dental records as Mary S. Grier and that the decedent's body was "in a state of decomposition with partial skeletonization, meaning exposure of bone, " when examined. Doctor Revercomb explained that the decedent's body arrived nude, with a ligature wrapped around her neck, a belly button piercing, and an anklet. She noted that a jumper-type garment accompanied the decedent's body.

         After explaining the procedure that she followed in examining the decedent's body, Dr. Revercomb acknowledged that "decomposition can obscure surface features of the body." During her external examination, Dr. Revercomb discovered bruising "on the front of the right knee, on the front of the lower right leg, and over the back of the index finger on the right hand." She also testified to "a fracture without any bleeding into it of the left clavicle" and opined that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, based on "[b]oth the appearance of the fracture break into that bone and its relationship to the body position at the scene, " that "this [was] a postmortem fracture; that [Grier] did not have a blood pressure when it happened." During her internal examination of the decedent, Dr. Revercomb "saw some focal bleeding in the scalp."

         Doctor Revercomb concluded that the cause of death was homicidal violence. She explained that "[h]omicidal violence is a blanket term for findings associated with an assault by another or others." She reached this opinion based on several factors, including "the positioning of the body in a concealed location where it was found, the presence of the ligature around the neck with an * * * irregular knot[, ]" the fact that the body was nude, the fact that there were clothing and a wig present at the scene, "indicating a struggle, " and the fact that there were bruises on the decedent's right leg and on her right-hand index finger, which Dr. Revercomb noted as resulting "potentially from a defensive cause or a defensive-type bruise." She also indicated that the time of death was difficult to pinpoint due to the extent of decomposition. She opined that, based on the maggot activity she observed when visiting the garage on July 24, the death could have occurred "a week or more" prior to that date.

         Tamara Wong, a forensic scientist employed at the Rhode Island Department of Health Laboratories, testified that she conducted a DNA analysis of "[a] ligature, three cuttings from a couch, "[9] swabbing from the tan pocketbook, fingernail clippings belonging to the decedent, and "a reference sample from [defendant]." Her analysis of these items was inconclusive, either because there were multiple contributors to the DNA profile or because there was no DNA profile. Wong also analyzed the pair of Joe Boxer underwear found in the garage, which resulted in a mixed DNA profile. Wong testified that the mixed DNA profile consisted of a major component and a minor component. Based on her analysis, she concluded that defendant's DNA profile was a match to the profile in the major component found on the pair of Joe Boxer underwear. She noted that there was a "1 in 82 trillion chance that" the DNA profile indicated someone other than defendant.

         Additionally, Kevin Horan, a Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Cellular Analysis Certificate Survey Team (CAST team), testified regarding his analysis of certain cell phone data from defendant's and Grier's phones. Agent Horan concluded that defendant's and Grier's cell phones were in the same approximate vicinity on the early morning of July 15, 2012.[10]

         C

         Other Trial Witnesses

         Brothers Nhoeuth Nhim and Nhoeun Nhim both testified that they lived in the first-floor apartment of the property during the summer of 2012 and that the garage was used as a "hanging out" space. Nhoeuth testified that, in June 2012, defendant would "hang out" in the garage, and sometimes stay overnight. Nhoeun testified that, during a time period in June and July 2012, defendant would stay in the garage, but he acknowledged that he did not know if defendant would sleep in the garage. Nhoeun also testified that he saw "a white person" that he did not know go into the garage, come out of the garage with a suitcase, and drive off with it. He claimed that the last day that he was near the garage before the police arrived was on July 14 and that defendant was also there. Nhoeuth testified that, sometime in July 2012, he started to clean the garage but did not get very far because of how unpleasant the garage smelled. He claimed to have thought that the smell was due to a dead animal.

         Kenneth J. Larney III, defendant's friend during the summer of 2012, also testified that he had seen defendant at the garage during that time, that he drove defendant there "[b]etween five and ten" times because defendant did not have a car, and that he knew defendant had "crashed" at the garage a few times. Larney noted that defendant "was kind of living place to place" and "didn't really have a set living location" at that time. He testified that he had personally "hung out" at the garage, playing cards, listening to music, and being "really nonchalant, " approximately five times. He testified that, on July 18, 2012, he was contacted by defendant and asked to pick up a suitcase that was in the garage. When he went to retrieve the suitcase, he simply lifted the door of the garage, retrieved the suitcase, and left. He claimed that he did not smell anything at that time. He placed the suitcase in the basement of his apartment located on Burnside Street in Cranston. He further testified that defendant informed him that he would eventually pick up the suitcase, but the Cranston police came to his home and retrieved it.[11]

         Vanyik Proeun testified that, in July 2012, he resided on the second-floor apartment of the property and that he had become friendly with defendant. Proeun testified that he gave defendant rides and, on one occasion, defendant informed him that he was attracted to strippers. He claimed that defendant always carried a red backpack with him. Proeun also recalled speaking to a police officer on July 21, and he testified that he had smelled the odor in the garage "probably the week before that."

         Sarivutha Pich, who also resided in the second-floor apartment, testified that, on July 15, 2012, after returning from a friend's wedding between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. feeling "kind of buzzed, " she proceeded to enter the apartment building through the back when she noticed that the garage light was on. She glanced into the garage and saw defendant in the garage alone. She testified that defendant informed her that everyone had gone to sleep and that he was "going to finish up" and "head out." She testified that she did not smell anything in the garage at that time.

         D

         Testimony of Dayo Oduntan

         Dayo Oduntan, who knew defendant for "a little bit over 15 years, " testified that the two were "close friends, buddies" when they first met. He testified that eventually he became friendly with defendant's mother and brother and that he would have dinner at defendant's mother's house. Over the course of fifteen years, Oduntan claimed, that he and defendant stayed in touch "[o]ff and on." He testified that, in 2002 or 2003, the two shared an apartment on Federal Hill in Providence. He recalled that, at that time, he observed defendant use the Backpage website and that, on occasion, defendant would "go on there, look[ing] for girls."

         Oduntan testified that he was incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in June 2012 for failing to report to parole.[12] He attested that, in July 2012, he saw defendant in prison, but that the two were not assigned to the same area in the ACI at that time. He testified that he then wrote a letter to the Special Investigations Unit "looking for a deal" with respect to his own sentence in exchange for information he had or could get from defendant. He explained that, as a result of a meeting with Cranston detectives, he was assigned to the same cellblock as defendant, but he was unable to strike a deal with the Attorney General's Office regarding his own sentence.

         While sharing a cell with defendant, Oduntan testified that he "asked [defendant] bluntly" about the murder and that defendant "right away start[ed] [to] mak[e] gestures and pointing around the room, pretty much insinuating that he was nervous that the room might [have been] bugged or wired." Oduntan testified that, while he was out on the recreational yard, he again asked defendant about the female and defendant "let it be known, yes, he did it." At that time, however, defendant "didn't get into detail" regarding the murder. Oduntan described defendant's demeanor as "[r]eal nonchalant about it. Like it didn't matter or anything like that."

         Oduntan testified that, on a later date, when the two were watching a television show where a cartoon character murdered a female and rolled her body in a carpet before disposing of it, defendant "jumped off the bunk and * * * point[ed] [to] the [television]" and said that that was what he had done and made "strangling gestures." He recounted that eventually defendant seemed more willing to talk about the murder and that defendant said he did not know why the police were "making such a big deal of even looking into it because she was a prostitute." On another occasion, according to Oduntan, the two were watching television again and a female was wearing a "short shirt thing, " where the shorts are connected to the shirt and defendant indicated that the female in the rug "was wearing something like that." Oduntan further testified that defendant did not give him a reason for committing the murder and also "didn't seem to care at all."

         When Oduntan asked defendant if anyone else was involved in the murder, Oduntan testified, defendant said that "he did it on his own, but he was mad at other people for not helping him dispose of her body." According to Oduntan, defendant named Nhoeuth Nhim as one of the individuals who had refused to assist in removing the body. Oduntan also testified that defendant indicated that he was surprised a friend "K.J." did not "rat on him, " since "K.J." had already been questioned, and that "K.J." was supposed to get defendant his clothing. He further testified that defendant said he was sleeping in the garage prior to the murder.

         Oduntan wrote another letter to authorities after learning all of this information; and, in the interim, he was released from custody after completing his sentence. He was again arrested and charged with armed robbery in 2013; and, while he was released on bail, he was contacted by the Cranston police regarding his willingness to testify. He acknowledged that he was a paid federal informant, but he insisted that he had ...


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