Frank Caraballo
Frank Caraballo

BRATTLEBORO -- In a jailhouse recording played to the court on Thursday afternoon, jurors may have heard what might be the closest thing to a confession they'll get from Frank Caraballo, who stands accused of killing Melissa Barratt on July, 28, 2011.

"If I leave it in God's hands," Caraballo told a friend on Aug. 13, 2011, "I'll be in the gas chamber."

That statement, coupled with testimony on Wednesday from a witness who said he was present when Caraballo shot Barratt in the back of the head, might prove to a jury to be guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

And to strengthen its case against the 31-year-old man, the government played for the jury the 40-minute recording of Caraballo's interview with Vermont State Police investigators on July 29, a few hours after Barratt's body was discovered in the woods off of East West Road in Dummerston.

Though Caraballo was told at the beginning of the interview that Barratt was dead, it was 28 minutes before he asked how she died, and only after being asked by investigators if he was curious as to her cause of death.

"Whoa," was all Caraballo said after they told him she had been shot.

During the interview, the investigators told Caraballo that Barratt was afraid of him.

"Why would she be afraid of me?" asked Caraballo in response.

When Caraballo realized the investigators were looking at him as the prime suspect in Barratt's death, he said, "You all are taking this thing to a whole new level. Why would I hurt her?"

We have a dead girl who said you had guns and had drugs and was afraid of you, responded one of the investigators

They also asked Caraballo if he thought Joshua Makhanda Lopez, who testified Caraballo pulled the trigger, could have killed Barratt.

"He wouldn't kill a fly if it was sitting on his shoulder," responded Caraballo.

At this point of the interview, the prosecutor suddenly stopped the recording, the jury was excused from the courtroom and Caraballo's attorneys stood up and requested a mistrial from Federal District Court Judge Christina Reiss.

Mark Kaplan, of Kaplan and Kaplan in Burlington, told the judge that he realized the transcript that was running below the video on courtroom screens was not the transcript he had been given during discovery.

Kaplan also noted that testimony stating Barratt was afraid of Caraballo was excluded in pre-trial motions because it was originally documented in an affidavit filed following her arrest for selling drugs for Caraballo, which was a few weeks before she was killed.

The judge agreed, saying because Barratt is dead, the defense can't confront her about her statements made to police. But, said Reiss, she considered a mistrial a "drastic remedy."

As with Makhanda Lopez's statements attesting to the fact that Caraballo killed Barratt, it's up to the jury to determine whether the statements are true or not, said the judge. And just because she excluded the statements made by Barratt to the investigator, that didn't prevent the interrogators from perpetrating an elaborate ruse on their suspect once they had him in the interview room.

"This is not sufficient for a mistrial," said Reiss.

She ordered that the transcript of the interrogation be redacted if the jury asks for it when it begins its deliberations. She also said she would explain to the jury that officers often engage in "ruses" to trap suspects into making incriminating statements.

When the jury was let back in to court, the recording was restarted.

When asked if he shot Barratt, Caraballo responded "No, I did not."

The interview ended shortly thereafter.

The prosecution alleges Caraballo killed Barratt because he suspected her of stealing a safe containing $10,000 worth of cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. On Monday, a witness testified that she saw Barratt in possession of the safe and that on July 28, 2011, Caraballo threatened to kill her and Barratt if he didn't get it back. Moments after making his threats, testified the witness, Caraballo and Makhanda Lopez left with Barratt.

Prior to the playing of the interview on Thursday, the prosecution introduced Elizabeth Bundock, Vermont's deputy chief medical examiner, who told the jury that Barratt died from a gunshot wound to the top left side of her head. When the bullet hit Barratt's skull, it broke into two. One piece entered her brain and lodged behind her left eye and the other piece lodged in her left shoulder.

Bundock said lack of forensic evidence to Barratt's head indicated the gun was held at least two inches from her skull when the trigger was pulled. She also told the jury that she couldn't pinpoint an exact time of death, but that it happened within 12 and 24 hours of when an assistant medical examiner was called to the scene on the side of East West Road at 4:40 p.m. on July 29, 2011.

The jury also heard from Arnold Esposito, a firearms and tool mark examiner from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who concluded from his examination of the cartridge found at the scene and the bullet fragments taken from Barratt's body that the weapon used on Barratt was a 9mm semi-automatic Glock.

Though the murder weapon was never found, last week witnesses testified that Caraballo accepted at least two firearms in lieu of payment for a drug debt. One of the guns he received, testified one witness, was a stolen Glock.

Other witnesses called by the prosecution before it rested Thursday afternoon included three people who testified they bought cocaine and crack cocaine from Caraballo or Pamela Zygmont, the mother of his baby, in the months leading up to Barratt's death.

One of those witnesses told the jury that on July 29 he ran into Caraballo, saying, "He looked tired ... a little nervous."

No court will be held in Rutland today but on Monday, Kaplan and Natasha Sen will begin their defense presentation.

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