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State v. Sanchez

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 29, 2019

Thomas Sanchez.

          Providence County Superior Court, P1/14-1484C, Francis J. Darigan, Jr. Associate Justice.

          For State: Owen Murphy Department of the Attorney General.

          For Defendant: J. Richard Ratcliffe, Esq.

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



         The defendant, Thomas Sanchez, seeks review of a judgment of conviction after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first degree robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit robbery. Sanchez raises a sole issue before this Court- whether or not the admission of an out-of-court statement made by Maria Rojas, an alleged coconspirator who did not appear at Sanchez's trial, deprived him of his right to confront the witnesses against him, in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article 1, section 10 of the Rhode Island Constitution. After thoroughly reviewing the record and after carefully considering the arguments of the parties, we affirm the judgment of conviction.


         Facts and Travel

         It has been said that nothing good happens after midnight. The facts before us in connection with this case provide some support for that adage. One night in February 2014, four friends-Leonardo Sanchez, Miguel Sanchez, Yonathan Melendez, and Joan Mustafa-spent the evening and early morning enjoying the nightlife of downtown Providence while partying at a local nightclub.[1] When the establishment closed at 3 a.m., the revelers visited a 7-Eleven and ordered some pizza. While they were eating, Christopher Xavier approached Leonardo, claiming that he knew him. Although he believed that Xavier might have been an occasional customer at his father's store, Leonardo told Xavier that he did not recognize him.

         Meanwhile, Melendez had become engaged in a conversation with two women who had entered the store with Xavier. One of the women was Maria Rojas, who invited the group to an "after party." After some cajoling, Melendez persuaded his compatriots to accompany the women to the party. A third woman joined the group and together, the four young men and three women squeezed into Leonardo's car as Maria directed them to her home, which was located on a dead end street in Pawtucket.

         Upon arriving, the group got out of the car and descended into a "make-shift" basement apartment. The "after party" the young men found there did not meet their expectations, and they found it to be sorely lacking in the expected festive accoutrements. When he later testified at trial, Melendez said that the men remarked at the time, "Ah, there's no alcohol. There's no music. There's no party. What's going on?" Both Melendez and Leonardo testified that the apartment was brightly illuminated, like "[a] normal apartment[, ]" and that they could see clearly. That said, the friends observed that the apartment was in a state of disarray and that a young man and a woman, later identified as Julian Diaz and his girlfriend, were sleeping in the living room.[2] The friends had been in the basement apartment for about ten to fifteen minutes when they were joined by three new arrivals-Christopher Xavier, Josue Laboy, and defendant Thomas Sanchez.

         Leonardo testified that, after Maria asked defendant why he had arrived so late, defendant replied, "Oh, I'm late because I went home to get this," as he brandished what Leonardo believed to be a handgun that defendant had removed from his waistband. Also, Melendez later claimed at trial that, at some point soon after defendant and the other men arrived, Melendez excused himself to use the bathroom. He was soon joined by defendant, who offered to allow Melendez to "have sex with this girl" if Melendez were to pay him. According to Melendez, he rejected that offer and decided that it was time to leave. A few minutes later, Melendez and Miguel made their exit from the apartment.

         Leonardo testified that, seeing his friends leave, he turned to say goodbye to the remaining partyers. Suddenly, defendant grabbed him from behind and held the handgun to his head. At the same time, Leonardo testified, Xavier held two knives to his abdomen. Leonardo testified that defendant then told him, "Run your pocket." Mustafa, who was huddled in the corner of the room, urged Leonardo to "give everything away. Give everything away." Leonardo did not heed that advice, and instead fought with defendant, lunging for the gun. Although he put up a valiant effort, in the end, Leonardo was subdued after defendant slammed the weapon into Leonardo's face three times.

         Leonardo testified at trial that his face was so bloody that he "couldn't see nothing." He claimed that someone picked him up from the floor and that one of the women told him to remove his ring. With some effort he managed to remove the ring from his finger, and he "gave it to one of the girls." Someone, Leonardo was not sure who, relieved him of his wallet, cell phone, and $150 in cash. After Leonardo's pockets were unburdened, Maria helped him into the bathroom so that he could wash himself.

         Melendez testified that, while the scene in the basement was playing out, he and Miguel were waiting outside by the car. Melendez testified that one of the women came outside and told them that Mustafa and Leonardo wanted them to rejoin the party and that the woman insisted that everyone was having fun. Despite having reservations, Melendez said that he eventually decided to return to the party, but that Miguel remained outside.

         Leonardo and Melendez each testified that defendant accosted Melendez as soon as he reentered the apartment; according to Melendez, defendant positioned himself behind Melendez while he held what Melendez believed to be a handgun while another man held a knife to Melendez's throat. Melendez said that, although defendant was behind him, he was able to see defendant's face during the encounter. Melendez further testified that someone told him, "Run your shit[, ]" and Mustafa, who was sitting in a chair nearby, urged him, "Look what they did to Leonardo just do what they say." Melendez averred that, unlike Leonardo, he acted on Mustafa's advice, and he was soon separated from his jewelry, personal phone, work phone, roughly $800 in cash, and his "good luck charm," a $2 bill. Melendez testified that defendant also demanded that he hand over his sweater. According to Melendez, defendant removed his own shirt, which had been soiled by Leonardo's blood, and donned Melendez's sweater.

         Melendez, Leonardo, and Mustafa were then allowed to leave, but Leonardo and Melendez each testified that their assailants were taunting them and bragging about having their belongings, and that one of their assailants-Leonardo testified that it was the man holding the knives-explained that he was aware of where the victims lived and that he threatened to hurt them or their families if they called the police. Before they left, Melendez asked defendant to return his sweater-he claimed it was a Christmas gift from his sister-and his work phone, and defendant complied with those requests. Despite the assailants' threats, Melendez called the police with his newly returned phone as Leonardo, Mustafa, and Melendez were leaving the apartment. The men got into Leonardo's car and drove to a Dunkin' Donuts about a block away, where they reconnected with Miguel and waited for the police.

         When police officers arrived at the scene, they stopped a vehicle as it was leaving the premises. Inside that vehicle were Julian Diaz, Josue Laboy, Christopher Xavier, Maria Rojas, two other women, and Maria's two young children. The defendant, who had been seated in the front passenger seat, already had left the vehicle and fled. The officers followed tracks in the snow through several residential lots and soon discovered defendant a few streets away from Maria's apartment, hiding under a deck. Police searched defendant and discovered that he was in possession of $737 in cash, two earrings, and a cell phone. A search of the suspects' car revealed a black BB gun on the floor behind the passenger seat and a magazine for the BB gun in the front passenger door compartment.

         Police arrested defendant, Rojas, Diaz, Xavier, and Laboy, and, on May 15, 2014, all five were charged by indictment with three counts of robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit robbery.[3] Trial testimony revealed that Leonardo and Melendez both identified defendant from a photographic array of twelve pictures, both claiming that defendant was the man who had wielded what they believed was a firearm during the robbery. Diaz and Xavier each pled nolo contendere to the charges brought against them. Subsequently, at trial, both Diaz and Xavier acknowledged that, during the course of their plea colloquies, each had admitted to helping Sanchez commit the robberies. Xavier agreed during his trial testimony that he had answered "yes" during his plea colloquy when asked if defendant had held a gun to one of the victims.[4]

         At defendant's trial, Laboy, Diaz, Xavier, and defendant all testified about the events of that night. Laboy's testimony was largely corroborative of that provided by Leonardo and Melendez. Significantly, Laboy testified that, about twenty minutes after the four friends had arrived at the party, defendant struck Leonardo with a handgun and told him, "Run your pocket. Give me your money[, ]" while another man wielded two knives. Laboy further testified that defendant later robbed the second victim (Melendez) while using the "same gun." The stories told by defendant, Diaz, and Xavier, however, were considerably inconsistent. Significant to this appeal, however, Maria Rojas absconded and a warrant was issued for her arrest. By the time of defendant's trial, she had not been apprehended and therefore was unavailable to testify at trial.

         When defendant took the stand in his own defense, he testified that he had joined Xavier and Laboy on the way to Maria's apartment to pick up some of Xavier's friends. According to defendant, neither he nor Xavier ever entered the apartment; instead, according to defendant, they remained outside in the car. The defendant testified that when Maria, her two children, Diaz, Laboy, and three other women packed into the car some time later, the new arrivals started "passing stuff out" and he was handed an iPhone. The defendant said he fled when police stopped the car because he believed that his fiancée might have called the police earlier that night, and he feared that police would arrest him for domestic abuse. He testified that the large amount of cash that was found on his person when he was apprehended belonged to him and that he had earned that money working on a construction job for his fiancée's father.

         Although Diaz and Xavier each had averred previously in open court that defendant had committed the robberies at the time they pled nolo contendere to charges relating to the events of that night, at defendant's trial, each recanted his earlier version of events. Each claimed that he had not been paying attention to what was being said during his plea colloquy.

         Indeed, in a complete reversal, Diaz took credit for robbing all four of the hapless friends, contradicting the testimony of Leonardo, Melendez, and Laboy that Miguel had not even been present at the time of the robberies. Diaz further swore that it was he who had battered the victims while Laboy and Maria helped him rifle through the victims' pockets. According to Diaz, both defendant and Xavier were outside in the car during the entire encounter. Significantly, Diaz's identification of the weapon used in the robbery oscillated between a BB gun, a .22 caliber handgun with the serial number shaved off, and "a high-power BB gun" bearing a legible serial number. Diaz claimed that he dropped the weapon in the back seat of the getaway car after the robberies and that he left the magazine inside the apartment, varying from the state's version of events that police had found the weapon's magazine in the passenger door compartment of the car.

         Interestingly, Xavier also testified that it was he who bore sole responsibility for the robberies, explaining that his weapon of choice had been knives. Contradicting the version of events he had previously said was true during his own plea hearing, Xavier testified that, although defendant was in the room during the robberies, and not outside as Diaz had testified, Xavier did not recall seeing defendant holding a gun. In fact, Xavier claimed that he was "dumbfounded" when police found a BB gun in his car because, he said, he had never seen the weapon before.

         Officer Donti Rosciti, of the North Providence Police Department, also testified about his investigation of the robberies.[5] On cross-examination by defendant, Officer Rosciti confirmed that Maria had acknowledged that she stole one of the victim's earrings. Later, during redirect examination, the ...

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