Federal attorney: No death penalty for Caraballo

Thursday December 20, 2012

RUTLAND -- Prosecutors told a judge in federal court in Rutland Wednesday they will not seek the death penalty against Frank Caraballo, who has been implicated in the shooting death of Brattleboro resident Melissa Barratt in July 2011.

Instead, Caraballo will face life in prison without the possibility of release if found guilty during a trial, which has yet to be scheduled.

And though Caraballo, 31, formerly of Holyoke, Mass., has been charged with being a felon in possession of three firearms, Caraballo's defense counsel, Mark Kaplan, told the Reformer no murder weapon has been entered into evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont.

Kaplan did confirm, however, that a shell casing and a bullet had been entered into evidence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van De Graaf would neither confirm nor deny Kaplan's statements.

Caraballo waived his appearance during the hearing.

His attorney, on his behalf, entered a not guilty plea.

Van De Graaf told Federal District Court Judge Christina Reiss that it was likely Caraballo's case would go to trial.

Reiss asked Van De Graaf if the U.S. Attorney's Office was pursuing a plea agreement.

"We're always willing to discuss matters with the defense," he said, admitting they had engaged in a "tentative discussion," but that his office wouldn't accept any plea agreement without any sort of admission as to what happened to Barratt.

Kaplan told the judge that he also believed the case would go to trial unless the U.S. Attorney was willing to make a proposal carrying less than a life sentence.

Barratt's body was discovered in a wooded area off East West Road in Dummerston on July 29, 2011.

According to court documents, Caraballo accused Barratt of stealing a large amount of drugs from him.

Caraballo, a convicted drug dealer in New York and Massachusetts, and his alleged accomplice Joshua A Makhanda-Lopez, now 24, formerly of Springfield, Mass., found Barratt at a friend's apartment.

Barratt's friend told police she and Barratt were held at gunpoint while Caraballo awaited instructions from a woman he referred to as "the boss" as to whether he was going to kill them.

Caraballo and Makhanda-Lopez then forcibly removed Barratt from the apartment and drove her to Dummerston where Caraballo shot her in the head, according to court documents.

Neither Van De Graaf nor Kaplan would discuss whether the identity of "the boss" has been determined.

Caraballo has been indicted on four counts related to Barratt's death -- one for being a felon in possession of firearms, one for using a Desert Eagle .357 in furtherance of a conspiracy to distribute 280 grams or more of crack cocaine, a third for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and a fourth for killing Barratt.

Caraballo is currently serving 16 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in September 2012 to distributing crack cocaine.

The discussion on Wednesday between the prosecution, the defense and the judge was meant to help establish a schedule for presenting motions prior to going to trial.

The U.S. Attorney's Office asked the judge for a 30-day limit for submissions, but the defense asked for 90 days, which Reiss granted.

"My client is serving a 16-year sentence," said Kaplan. "He's not going anywhere."

Among the motions Kaplan is considering filing is a motion to suppress comments Caraballo made following his arrest and a motion to dismiss all or some of the charges.

Reiss was unwilling to commit to a date for the start of a trial, but did indicate once the 90-day time period was over, she would review any motions and proceed from there.

"I imagine it will be a fairly lengthy trial," she said. Kaplan said he was in the process of reviewing 2,500 pages of written discovery and 40 hours of recorded jailhouse telephone conversations between Caraballo and unnamed parties.

But, he added, he was still missing one crucial piece of evidence -- any police cruiser videos that might have been recorded during Caraballo's arrest on July 29, 2011.

Van De Graaf said that his office was in the process of determining whether any cruiser video existed, and that Caraballo's defense team, consisting of Kaplan and Natasha Sen, would receive copies if any are discovered.

Kaplan also said there are a number of audio recordings he and Sen will need to listen to and expert reports to review.

Kaplan told the judge the U.S. Attorney's Office has disclosed the names of 23 people it has interviewed but is withholding the names of eight others.

Van De Graaf told the Reformer after the hearing that the names weren't being disclosed for safety reasons.

In addition to the 31 witnesses already interviewed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Kaplan said there could be another 30 to 40 other people the defense team would like to talk to.

Caraballo was initially charged in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division in Brattleboro with second degree murder, but that case was dismissed without prejudice in light of the federal drug and firearms investigation.

According to federal statutes, if convicted of selling 280 grams or more of crack cocaine and then if convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, the resulting sentence is mandatory life imprisonment.

It is also a mandatory life sentence for using a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, such as the killing of Barratt.

Makhanda-Lopez, Caraballo's alleged accomplice, has pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to distribute drugs and possession of a firearm in connection with drug distribution and is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Caraballo's brother, Michael Caraballo, now 30, also formerly of Holyoke, Mass., was sentenced to 12 years in prison in October, also for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

According to court documents, in February and March of 2011 Michael Caraballo distributed several grams of crack cocaine and powder cocaine in Brattleboro.

In addition, according to court records, on March 16, 2011, in Brattleboro, Michael Caraballo allegedly shot at, and hit, a vehicle containing a drug customer. No one was injured in that shooting.

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


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