Court denies appeal in Caraballo homicide trial

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BRATTLEBORO — A drug dealer who was convicted in the death of a Brattleboro woman in 2011 had his appeal rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Attorneys for Frank Caraballo had contested that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of causing the death of Melissa Barratt by murder. They also contended that a warrantless request for cell phone location information violated Caraballo's Fourth Amendment.

However, wrote the court, "we hold that a rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Caraballo caused the death of Barratt by murder for substantially the same reasons as those stated by the District Court in its thorough opinion."

At approximately 10:45 a.m. on July 29, 2011, troopers with the Vermont State Police responded to a report of a woman's body about 30 yards off of East West road, not too far from the Dummerston Covered Bridge over the West River.

"The officers inferred that the homicide had taken place that morning based on a report from a nearby construction crew of a gunshot-like sound earlier in the morning," noted the court. As a result, the officers 'suspected that the woman was a victim of a homicide and that her assailant could still be armed.'"

Prior to her death, Barratt had been arrested by the Brattleboro Police Department on May 10 for selling drugs. At the time, she told officers that she was "extremely nervous and afraid of Frank Caraballo," with whom she worked dealing drugs. In particular, she stated that "if he knew that she was talking to (the officer), he would hurt her, kill her." Despite her fear of Caraballo, up to her death, Barratt was helping him sell drugs.

Out of her fear of Caraballo, Barratt refused to work with police, who were conducting an investigation into his drug dealing and had made controlled buys from him in June and July. It was through these controlled buys that investigators learned of two phone numbers Caraballo was using.

Out of concern that Caraballo might harm other people, including undercover officers, investigators considered asking for a search warrant to force Sprint to determine the location of Caraballo's cell phones.

"The officers, however, viewed the time that it would take to secure this information by search warrant prohibitory. This was because, "in the absence of exigent circumstances," the provider's slow compliance with the warrant would "likely . . . involve 'a huge delay of getting the information.'"

Concluding that this was "a legitimate emergency," the officers decided to request that Sprint locate Caraballo's phones through their GPS without securing a warrant. This approach was endorsed by the county's state attorney, who agreed that such a search "was appropriate and it was probably the best action to take."

Twenty-three minutes after Sprint received the request from the police, Caraballo's phone was "pinged," or located. A little after 5 p.m. on July 29, Caraballo was spotted at a fast food restaurant in Springfield and shortly thereafter he was taken into custody.

Caraballo was eventually charged a number of crimes, including dealing in cocaine and causing the death of Barratt.

He pleaded guilty to distribution and was sentenced to 200 months in prison. Following a jury trial in district court in Rutland, Caraballo was found guilty for causing the death of Barratt and sentenced to 40 years.

During the trial, Caraballo's attorneys attempted to have the cell phone data suppressed on the grounds of the Fourth Amendment, which states "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation ..." The District Court denied the suppression motion and the Appeals Court agreed, noting, "the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment must yield in those situations in which exigent circumstances require law enforcement officers to act without delay." In other words, because investigators were concerned for the safety of other people involved, the Fourth Amendment provides no protection against a non-warrant request for cell phone information.

Attorneys for Caraballo had also argued that the District Court abused its discretion in failing to exclude a statement made by Caraballo to his prison cellmate that he would be in the "gas chamber" if he left his fate "in God's hands."

"As the District Court recognized, Caraballo's admission has probative value because it could demonstrate that Caraballo understood himself to have committed an act worthy of significant punishment," noted the Appeals Court.

In addition, Caraballo's attorneys attempted to throw out testimony from Joshua Lopez, who was a main prosecution witness who told the jury in Rutland he was with Caraballo when he shot and killed Barratt.

"The District Court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Rule 403 did not bar Joshua Lopez from testifying on redirect that both he and his family had received threats in connection with his cooperation with the Government. On cross examination, Caraballo's counsel strongly contested Lopez's motivation for cooperating with law enforcement and, in fact, elicited testimony from Lopez that he was threatened in the first place. As such, Lopez's re-direct testimony, which clarified his prior testimony concerning the threats, was not only probative as to Lopez's motive for testifying against Caraballo, but also hardly prejudicial given that Lopez had already stated that unspecified threats had contributed to his decision to cooperate. The admission of Lopez's testimony was therefore not erroneous."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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