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Navarro v. State

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 22, 2018

Angel Navarro
State of Rhode Island.

          Providence County No. PM 09-5227 Superior Court Susan E. McGuirl Associate Justice

          For Applicant: Carl J. Ricci, Esq.

          For State of Rhode Island: Christopher R. Bush Department of Attorney General.

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


          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         The applicant, Angel Navarro, [1] appeals from a postconviction-relief judgment in favor of the State of Rhode Island and against Navarro. In those proceedings, Navarro challenged the trial court's acceptance of his nolo contendere plea on a second-degree murder charge. Navarro's plea was "capped" at sixty years, with forty years to serve and twenty years suspended with probation following his release, and the maximum sentence was imposed. This matter came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I Facts and Procedural History

         On August 19, 1999, Alfred C. Moon, M.D., was found dead inside his residence. From 1999 to 2004, police investigated Dr. Moon's mysterious death, to no avail. Then, on June 23, 2004, after police received information about a potential suspect, Navarro was arrested. On July 8, 2005, a grand jury indicted Navarro for murder in violation of G.L. 1956 §§ 11-23-1 and 11-23-2. On November 16, 2006, Navarro entered into a plea agreement, whereby he pled nolo contendere to an amended charge of second-degree murder, and his sentence was "capped" at sixty years, with forty years to serve and the twenty-year balance suspended with probation.

         The plea proceedings began with the state's motion to amend the charge to second-degree murder, which the hearing justice granted. Next, the hearing justice asked if Navarro understood that by entering his plea he would be giving up the rights contained in the plea form; to which Navarro responded, "Yes." The hearing justice then asked Navarro if he had reviewed the plea form with his attorney (trial counsel). Navarro again responded in the affirmative. At this point, trial counsel asked the hearing justice for an opportunity to speak with Navarro about "a question" regarding, as the attorney described it, "the back end of the number which I did not go over with [Navarro]." Then, trial counsel and Navarro conferred off the record.

         Subsequently, the hearing justice informed Navarro that he was giving up his right to a trial and explained to Navarro what it meant to give up that right. The hearing justice then asked Navarro if he had any questions, to which Navarro responded, "No, your Honor." Following Navarro's acceptance of the prosecution's statement of the facts as true, the hearing justice informed Navarro that the plea was capped and agreed upon by Navarro, the state, and trial counsel. The hearing justice further explained that the sentence could be no more than sixty years with forty years to serve and asked Navarro: "If I accept your plea and cap that sentence with those years, you can't change your mind later on about this. Do you understand?" Navarro responded that he understood. The hearing justice indicated that the sentencing was to be held at a separate hearing, at which time the court would consider a presentence report and the recommendations of the state and trial counsel. The hearing justice further informed Navarro that he would also have an opportunity to address the court.

         Again, the hearing justice said to Navarro: "If the maximum sentence is imposed that can be imposed under this agreement, you could end up spending [forty] years in prison. Do you understand that?" Navarro replied, "Yes." The hearing justice then warned Navarro that during the entire sixty-year sentence, if imposed, he would have to abide by the terms of his probation, to which Navarro again responded that he understood. Lastly, the hearing justice asked Navarro if he had any questions, to which Navarro replied, "No."

         On December 13, 2006, the same justice conducted Navarro's sentencing hearing. At that time, Dr. Moon's colleague, his two sons, and his daughter addressed the court. Navarro's mother and wife[2] also addressed the court, as did Navarro. In his statement, Navarro apologized to Dr. Moon's family and expressed remorse.

         During the sentencing hearing, trial counsel made a sentence recommendation on Navarro's behalf. He stated that "[Navarro] is sincere when he says that his only wish and prayer would be to reverse the events of August 17, 1999 that led to such a tragedy" and that Navarro "has admitted to being responsible for the death of Dr. Moon." Trial counsel described Navarro's difficult upbringing and pointed out that the totality of his criminal past was nonviolent and related to his challenges with addiction. Trial counsel chronicled the events that occurred on the night of the murder from Navarro's perspective and provided a very detailed recitation of the circumstances that led to Dr. Moon's death. He noted that Navarro had been released from prison three days prior to Dr. Moon's murder, after serving time for heroin possession. Earlier that day, Navarro had "sniffed" two bags of heroin and had been drinking heavily.

         Additionally, trial counsel cited to his research on sentences in other second-degree murder cases, which revealed terms of less than five years to up to forty years to serve. He further noted that the average sentence of the thirty-six cases he examined was fifty years with twenty-seven years to serve. He distinguished the instant case from others, arguing that in this case "[t]here was a degree of provocation and an element of self-defense." He further argued that Navarro's sentence should be reduced because he had taken responsibility for Dr. Moon's death, showed genuine remorse, and demonstrated "a true sense of trying to right his wrongs."

         Furthermore, trial counsel explained that Navarro had "assisted the prosecution in the United States District Court for charges that occurred while [Navarro] was serving at the [Adult Correctional Institutions] and witnessed an alleged crime." In summation, trial counsel recommended that Navarro be sentenced to forty years with fifteen to twenty years to serve, and trial counsel also recommended that Navarro participate in treatment for anger management and substance abuse.

         After reviewing the facts of the case, the hearing justice noted that, for four years while law enforcement worked to solve Dr. Moon's murder, Navarro failed to take responsibility and remained at large. In addition, the hearing justice noted the severity of the attack, Navarro's criminal history, his likelihood of rehabilitation, and trial counsel's research on sentencing in second-degree murder cases. The hearing justice sentenced Navarro to the maximum sentence under the capped plea ...

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