Frank Caraballo, 29, of Brattleboro
Frank Caraballo, 29, of Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO -- A federal judge issued an opinion Thursday morning denying a motion for acquittal for a man convicted of causing the death of a Brattleboro woman in July 2011.

Following a 10-day trial, on Oct. 2, 2013, a jury found Frank Caraballo, 31, of Holyoke, Mass., guilty of carrying or possessing a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, causing the death of Melissa Barratt by murder through the use of the firearm. He was also found guilty of distributing heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine in and around Brattleboro.

However, the jury did not find Caraballo guilty of actually pulling the trigger.

Even though the jury heard testimony from a number of people implicating Caraballo in Barratt's death, Caraballo's attorneys wrote in a Nov. 1 filing for acquittal, "None of this evidence indicates in any way that Mr. Caraballo directed or caused anyone else to murder Ms. Barratt."

Barratt's body was found in the woods off of East West Road in Dummerston. Jurors heard testimony that Caraballo suspected Barratt of stealing a safe from him containing thousands of dollars worth of drugs. They also heard testimony that Caraballo had threatened to kill whoever stole the safe. In addition, Joshua Makhanda Lopez, who testified he was with Caraballo when he killed Barratt, told the jury he was there when Caraballo pulled the trigger.

In their Nov. 1 filing, Caraballo's attorneys contended the jury's conclusion was "inherently inconsistent" because prosecutors' only theory was that Caraballo shot Barratt in the head with a 9mm handgun. No weapon was ever recovered.

Because federal prosecutors didn't pursue an alternative theory that Lopez killed Barratt at the behest of Caraballo, wrote Mark Kaplan and Natasha Sen, "There was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that Caraballo caused Barratt's murder, given that the jury did not find that Mr. Caraballo discharged the firearm that caused her death. As a result, in order to have caused Barratt's death, the jury had to find that Caraballo caused someone else to perform an act that caused her death. There is no evidence to support such a finding."

In her opinion filed Thursday, Federal District Court Judge Christina Reiss disagreed.

"Defendant is simply incorrect that these outcomes are inherently inconsistent with the evidence presented at trial," she wrote. "The jury found only that the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant discharged the firearm."

Kaplan and Sen argued that Lopez actually killed Barratt, noted Reiss.

"Because Lopez had no independent reason to shoot Barratt, the jury could have found that he did so at Defendant's direction consistent with ample evidence regarding Lopez's role in the conspiracy and government's aiding and abetting theory. The verdict that he caused Barratt's death is therefore consistent with the evidence presented at trial."

Reiss noted that the defense's argument "is clearly foreclosed by Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent because ‘it is neither unusual nor unacceptable for a jury to render inconsistent verdicts.'"

The jury's conclusion, she wrote, quoting from precedent, "'cannot be upset by speculation or inquiry into such matters' since courts must avoid ‘explorations into the jury's sovereign space.'"

"There was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Barratt was a member of Defendant's drug conspiracy; that she stole drugs from him that were part of the conspiracy; that he used a Glock acquired in the conspiracy to threaten to kill Barratt in an effort to recover the stolen drugs; and that he carried out that threat with the Glock ..."

Kaplan and Sen also petitioned the judge to dismiss the conviction that Caraballo possessed a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Again, Reiss disagreed, pointing out that prosecution witnesses testified they traded handguns to pay off drug debts and to acquire more drugs.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.