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State v. Danis

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 19, 2018

Eugene Danis.

          Kent County Superior Court (K1/14-679A) Associate Justice Brian P. Stern

          For State: Lauren S. Zurier Department of Attorney General

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

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



         On November 19, 2014, a grand jury indicted Eugene Danis (Danis or defendant) on charges of one count of first-degree child molestation sexual assault, in violation of G.L. 1956 §§ 11-37-8.1 and 11-37-8.2, and one count of the sale or distribution of photographs of a minor suggesting that the minor engaged in, or is about to engage in, a sexual act, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-9-1(b). A Kent County Superior Court jury convicted the defendant on both counts on February 9, 2016. On appeal, the defendant argues that the trial justice deprived him of his constitutional rights to confront and cross-examine the complaining witness. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         The defendant was charged with sexually abusing his stepdaughter, Veronica.[1] At trial, Veronica testified that her mother began dating defendant when Veronica was about seven years old, and he moved in with Veronica and her mother some time before they were married. Once they were married in 2009, Veronica testified that she began calling defendant "dad."

         In 2012, Veronica moved with her mother and defendant to defendant's aunt's house in West Warwick. The defendant's aunt passed away that same year. Because defendant was not working at that time, Veronica recalled, he would watch her after school when her mother was at work.

         Although Veronica had a positive relationship with defendant prior to his aunt's passing, she testified that, once she was twelve years old, her relationship with him began to change. Specifically, Veronica remembered defendant speaking about topics that "a normal father wouldn't really talk about, " such as "sexual" topics. For example, Veronica testified that defendant would enter the bathroom while she was showering and speak to her through the curtain, even opening the curtain one time while he was shirtless, pretending as though he planned to get in the shower with her.

         Veronica testified that, on a number of occasions, defendant showed her some pornographic pamphlets that arrived in the mail and told her that the women in the pictures made money from posing nude. Eventually, Veronica stated, defendant had a few conversations with her about making money if she posed for such pictures. After those conversations, Veronica agreed to take such pictures, explaining that she did so because "in [her] twelve-year[-]old mind" she thought she would "get money" if she did so-money that she could use to purchase "an I-pad, electronics, and stuff like that."

         According to Veronica, she posed for defendant about five times-once on defendant and her mother's bed, and the other times in the basement. The first time she posed on the bed was in the fall of 2012. She wore no clothes and had on only high-heeled shoes, and defendant instructed her on how to position herself to expose her breasts and vagina to the camera. After defendant took the pictures with the camera on Veronica's cell phone, Veronica removed the S.D. card and put it in the printer because she was "pretty sure" defendant "couldn't figure out how to work the printer * * *." Then, defendant told her to delete the photographs from the phone and the S.D. card. On cross-examination, Veronica explained that defendant told her that he was sending the printed pictures to the owner of Playboy, who he said was a friend of his.

         Veronica said defendant used a disposable camera to take the downstairs photographs. She recollected that defendant told her to use lubricant and a vibrator so they could get more money for the pictures; Veronica remembered being "reluctant" to use the vibrator because she had "never been * * * penetrated before." Nevertheless, Veronica testified, defendant "put it in" her, but she held it while he took the pictures. The entirety of the photo shoot lasted about one hour.

         Veronica recalled telling defendant around her thirteenth birthday that she did not want to take pictures any longer. After that, Veronica testified that defendant asked her to wear a "strap-on" that her mom had "tried * * * on[, ]" but Veronica declined.

         At this point, Veronica testified, she did not tell her mom what was happening because she believed her mother was happy with defendant and if she said anything, they would break up, and defendant told Veronica that she would be taken away from her mother. She also testified that he told her he would be put in jail and "wouldn't be [her] dad" anymore.

         After Veronica decided she no longer wanted to take the pictures, defendant became more strict with her, which caused tension between them, culminating in a fight over Veronica's failure to clean out her guinea pig's cage. During that fight, Veronica recalled that defendant accused her of not keeping her promises. In response, she showed him a camera she owned at the time, to indicate that she had kept her promise regarding the pictures, but defendant responded that that was in the past and did not matter anymore.

         Veronica's friend, Nadia, was present at the time of the fight, and both girls went for a walk, during which time Veronica explained to Nadia what defendant had done to her. Nadia expressed to Veronica that she did not know what to do, but that Nadia could explain the situation to Nadia's grandmother. After Nadia did so, her grandmother called Veronica's mother and told her to come to Nadia's house. When Veronica's mother learned what had happened, she returned home to confront defendant about Veronica's allegations.

         During the course of the trial, the trial justice held a voir dire hearing on the issue of permitting defense counsel to question Veronica regarding prior sexual-abuse allegations she purportedly made against her biological father when she was five years old. The state attempted to keep this evidence out at trial, while the defense argued that it was relevant to Veronica's motive to lie about sexual assault by father figures in her life. The trial justice ultimately precluded defense counsel from pursuing this line of questioning, and this decision is at issue in this appeal.

         Veronica's mother also testified at trial. She testified that Veronica's biological father had "sporadic" visitation with Veronica from 2000 to 2005. She testified that, in 2007, defendant moved in with her and Veronica at their Coventry residence. At that time, Veronica's grandmother lived with them and was primarily responsible for the care of Veronica while Veronica's mother was at work. Eventually, Veronica's mother and defendant moved with Veronica to the West Warwick house, at which time defendant was unemployed and took over watching Veronica in the mornings and afternoons.

         Veronica's mother recalled that, in April 2014, her daughter wanted to go to a birthday party, but defendant said that she could not go because she had not cleaned her guinea pig's cage. After the argument between Veronica and defendant ended, Veronica's mother took Veronica and her friend, Nadia, to a store, after which the girls went to Nadia's house. Soon after, Veronica's mother remembered receiving a phone call from Nadia, asking her to come to Nadia's house because Nadia's grandmother wanted to speak to her. When Veronica's mother arrived at the house, she discovered Veronica crying, sitting in the passenger's seat of Nadia's grandmother's car. When Veronica calmed down, Veronica told her that defendant had taken nude photographs of her and that she did not want to return home.

         When Veronica's mother first confronted defendant, he initially denied the allegations, and he stated, "'I knew this was coming. Get [Veronica] so we can talk.'" Veronica's mother met Veronica at another store, where Nadia's grandmother had taken the two girls, and, in the car, Veronica shared details with her mother regarding the sexual assaults-including that defendant used a vibrator on her.

         After Veronica's mother went back to her house for a second time, she again spoke with defendant; she testified that he said, "'It was all her idea.'" Veronica's mother told defendant to move out of the house, and he complied. The next day, Veronica's mother called the police to give a statement, and the police confiscated two laptops and Veronica's old cell phone; at some point later, she gave police defendant's old cell phone as well.

         Nadia also testified at trial. She recalled the day of Veronica's argument with defendant over failing to clean her pet's cage and not attending a birthday party; she also recalled Veronica telling her that defendant had taken nude pictures of her. Nadia testified that the girls took a walk together, during which Veronica told her that defendant had taken the pictures of her and touched her.

         Officer Trenna Beltrami[2] of the West Warwick Police Department testified on behalf of the state. She recalled being dispatched to a West Warwick address because Veronica's mother had requested to speak with a female police officer to report her husband having taken nude photographs of her daughter. Officer Beltrami stated that Veronica's mother told her that her daughter had explained that, in the photographs, a vibrator was used as well as a "strap-on sex toy, " which had been thrown in the trash. When she spoke with Veronica, Officer Beltrami remembered that she was told that the photographs were taken upstairs at first, and the rest ...

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