BURLINGTON -- With Frank Caraballo's trial slated to begin next month, the judge is considering whether jurors should learn about the murder suspect's prior drug convictions or about certain statements he made to the police.
Caraballo, 31, has denied killing a Bellows Falls woman while trafficking drugs two years ago in an execution-style slaying in Dummerston.
In addition to charges related to the killing, federal prosecutors have charged Caraballo with conspiring to distribute heroin and cocaine, having a firearm while committing a drug-trafficking crime and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
During a hearing Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, defense attorney Natasha Sen argued that the court should try her client on being a felon in possession of a firearm separately from the other charges. Otherwise, she said, the jurors likely would learn about Caraballo's prior drug-trafficking convictions and might unfairly assume he committed the other crimes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for Vermont Joe Perella proposed a compromise: The court would try Caraballo on the four charges together but "sanitize" its description of the charge alleging Caraballo was a convicted felon with a gun. The prosecutor suggested the court make the jurors aware of that fact but stop short of providing specifics.
The court should try Caraballo on the four counts at the same time because the defendant accepted guns as currency when dealing drugs, Perella said.
"This case is a case about guns and drugs together," Perella said. "The gun component is an integral part to this drug conspiracy."
Judge Christina Reiss took under advisement the defense's motion to handle the charges separately. She also took under advisement the defense's motion to throw out statements Caraballo made to police the day of his arrest.
The Vermont State Police arrested Caraballo in Springfield on July 29, 2011, the same day the body of Melissa Barratt, 31, was found in the woods near a dirt road in Dummerston.
Barratt had been shot once in the head, according to court papers.
The victim, who had been charged with drug possession, had told police that Caraballo would kill her if he found out she had talked to investigators. According to a police affidavit, Caraballo told witnesses he intended to kill Barratt because he thought she had stolen a safe from him.
A fellow drug dealer, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, later told police he drove Caraballo and Barratt to the spot in Dummerston where her body was later found, according to court papers.
Makhanda-Lopez struck a deal with prosecutors last August and pleaded guilty to two counts involving drug trafficking.
A month later, Caraballo pleaded not guilty in federal court to killing Barratt. He was sentenced at that same hearing to serve 17 years in prison on drug-trafficking charges.
During the 2 1/2-hour hearing Tuesday, defense attorney Mark Kaplan called into question whether the Vermont State Police had probable cause to stop Makhanda-Lopez's car on July 29, 2011, and detain Caraballo.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf argued the state police collectively had enough evidence to arrest Caraballo on suspicion of drug crimes, even if the arresting trooper was not privy to all of that information.
Kaplan previously has argued that the state police also violated Caraballo's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure by contacting Sprint and having the company track down Caraballo using the GPS coordinates of his cellphone.
The defense attorney has said Caraballo was unlawfully detained, and therefore anything he said later to detectives at the state police barracks in Rockingham should be inadmissible at trial.
The prosecution disagreed.
"A short-term location surveillance of a suspect on public roads is not a search," the government contended in court papers. "A person traveling in an automobile on public roads should not have Fourth Amendment protection from his cell phone being used to locate him in order to arrest him."
In addition to taking the motions under advisement Tuesday, Reiss also granted Kaplan's request for more time to prepare for trial. She postponed the start of the trial one week to Sept. 16. The attorneys have said they expect the proceedings to last three weeks.