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State v. Najera

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 19, 2019

Joel Najera.

          Providence County (P2/16-926A) Superior Court Bennett R. Gallo Associate Justice

          For State: Owen Murphy Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Camille A. McKenna 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 May 8, 2019, on appeal by the defendant, Joel Najera (defendant), from a judgment of conviction entered in the Providence County Superior Court following a jury trial. Before this Court, the defendant argues that the trial justice erred in denying his motion for a new trial because the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence.[1] The parties were directed to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda filed by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown, and we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         On March 23, 2016, defendant was charged by way of criminal information with one count of assault with a dangerous weapon, to wit, a machete, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-5-2 (count 1), and one count of malicious injury to property, to wit, a car window and basement window, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-44-1 (count 2). A five-day jury trial commenced on October 30, 2017, in Providence County Superior Court. Several witnesses, including defendant, presented conflicting versions of events in this case, which occurred during the early hours of Christmas Day 2015. We proceed to summarize the pertinent testimony of the witnesses in the case.

         The complaining witness, Luis Portillo (Portillo), testified that, on December 25, 2015, he was listening to music and having drinks with a group of friends in the basement apartment of a building located at 164 Regent Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island. Portillo testified that defendant knocked on the basement door and asked the group to turn down the music because "he had children upstairs"; defendant also indicated that if the volume was not lowered, "he was going to call the police." Portillo testified that defendant looked "bothered" when he was speaking to the group and that "[h]is eyes, they were angry, and he talked really upset." After the group turned the music off, defendant then asked Portillo to move his car because it was parked in defendant's designated parking space; the two walked to the parking lot together.

         As Portillo was getting into his car, he noticed in the driver's side mirror that defendant was approaching him with a "bladed weapon" in his hand; Portillo subsequently described the bladed weapon as a machete. The defendant swung the machete at Portillo, who ducked and tried to back away. The defendant swung the machete a second time, slicing the left side of Portillo's face from his left eye to his left nostril. As Portillo retreated to the basement of the apartment building, Rafael Sanchez, Sr. (Sanchez), another tenant of 164 Regent Avenue, walked into the parking lot, approached defendant, and told him to "calm down."

         While Portillo was cleaning his wound in the basement apartment, his friend, Steven Figueroa, called 911 and told the dispatcher that there was a "guy with a machete." The dispatcher notified the Providence Police Department that a "male with the machete hit another man in the face with the machete."[2] As they waited inside the house for the police officers to arrive, Portillo testified, he heard defendant breaking his car windows and the basement windows and heard defendant yell, "Come out. Come out because I'm going to kill you." Once the police arrived and Portillo came outside, he noticed that his rear car window and his right rear passenger window had been shattered. An officer asked Portillo who had assaulted him, and Portillo told the officer that it was defendant. The police detained defendant, and Portillo was subsequently taken to the hospital.

         At trial, Sanchez also testified for the prosecution. He recalled that, when his girlfriend dropped him off at 164 Regent Avenue on December 25, 2015, Portillo's car was parked in defendant's designated parking space. When Sanchez went to tell the group in the basement that they needed to move Portillo's car, he "realized that [Portillo] was already going to move the car." He returned to the parking lot and witnessed defendant take a machete from the trunk of his vehicle and hit Portillo in the face; Sanchez yelled, "Don't do it," to no avail. Sanchez proceeded to grab Portillo, brought him inside the house "so that he wouldn't have more trouble," and detained the group of friends in the basement so "they couldn't go out because that was just going to make more problems[.]" Sanchez testified that he also heard defendant smash the car windows and the basement windows and heckle the group in the basement. Sanchez also went outside and spoke to the officers when they arrived.[3] Sanchez testified that, during their investigation, the officers looked around the parking lot and inside defendant's vehicle, but they did not find the machete.

         Maria Chevez (Chevez), Sanchez's girlfriend, next testified that, at approximately 12 a.m. on December 25, 2015, she dropped Sanchez off at 164 Regent Avenue and proceeded to drop another friend at his home about five minutes away. When she returned to 164 Regent Avenue, she parked her car at the entrance of the driveway because her parking space was blocked by defendant's vehicle. Chevez testified that, as she got out of her car, she approached defendant, who had a machete in his hand and appeared "nervous." When she asked him what happened, defendant said, "Neighbor, I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it, Neighbor." Chevez testified that she did not say anything else to defendant, but that, as she ran up the driveway, she noticed that the windows of a car were broken and that defendant's sister was exiting the apartment building and appeared to be "scared." As Chevez entered the building, she began to hear sirens and watched defendant throw the machete in the trunk of his vehicle. Chevez then saw Sanchez coming out of the basement while "trying to keep the kids who were inside from going outside." She testified that when she spotted a bloodied Portillo with Sanchez, she went into the apartment building for a wet towel to help clean him. When Chevez went back outside, the police had arrived and defendant was inside a police cruiser. She also testified that she observed the officers searching the outside area for the machete, including defendant's vehicle.

         Patrolman Kyle Richards (Officer Richards) of the Providence Police Department was on duty on December 25, 2015, when he responded to a call at 164 Regent Avenue. Officer Richards testified that when he arrived he encountered two males and a female in the driveway, including Portillo. While Officer Richards and another Providence police officer were speaking with Portillo, defendant came from behind the apartment building "yelling in Spanish" and "kind of frantic." After Portillo told the officers what occurred, Officer Richards immediately placed defendant in custody; Officer Richards testified that defendant was not bleeding, nor did he appear to have any ...

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