Judge denies Caraballo's plea for acquittal
BRATTLEBORO -- More than nine months after Frank Caraballo's conviction in connection with the death of a Brattleboro woman, a judge again has denied the Holyoke, Mass., man's requests to overturn the jury's verdict.
This week, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of Vermont's U.S. District Court ruled against Caraballo on two fronts: First, Reiss said a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision should have no effect on Caraballo's conviction on a firearms charge.
Also, Reiss reaffirmed that the evidence at last year's trial was sufficient to show that Caraballo was the cause of Melissa Barratt's death by gunshot in July 2011.
"Based upon the evidence presented, a rational jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant caused Ms. Barratt's death by murder, using a firearm that was also used in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, even if it could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt who pulled the trigger," Reiss wrote.
Barratt's body was discovered in the woods off East-West Road in Dummerston, and Caraballo was charged in her killing. Prosecutors said Caraballo, a drug dealer, murdered Barratt because he believed she had stolen drugs from him.
After a trial last fall in U.S. District Court in Rutland, a jury on Oct. 2 found Caraballo guilty on three counts:
-- Conspiracy to distribute cocaine base, cocaine powder and heroin.
-- Using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to, or possessing a firearm in furtherance of, a drug-trafficking crime.
-- Using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to, or possessing a firearm in furtherance of, that drug-trafficking crime and causing the death of Melissa Barratt by murder.
However, the jury did not find that Caraballo actually discharged the firearm that killed Barratt.
Following the verdicts, Caraballo asked for judgment of acquittal -- in other words, he wanted the judge to discard the jury's verdict. On March 6, the court denied that request.
Reiss' latest rulings are in response to Caraballo's request that she reconsider that decision. Prosecutors argued that Caraballo's motion was not timely, but the judge granted an exception in this case, pointing to the fact that Caraballo was, in part, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision from March.
"Because defendant's sentencing is currently set for Sept. 8, 2014, and because a judgment has not yet been entered in defendant's case, there is little prejudice to the government and no adverse impact on the court's proceedings if defendant's belatedly filed motion is considered," Reiss wrote in a ruling filed Wednesday.
However, in the same document, she proceeded to dismantle both of Caraballo's arguments.
His attorneys had claimed that a Supreme Court ruling in Rosemond vs. United States should spur reconsideration of the Caraballo verdict because it is "an intervening change in controlling law regarding aiding and abetting convictions."
The Rosemond case involved a "drug deal gone bad" and shots fired from a getaway car, and the Supreme Court ruled that a court's jury instructions in the ensuing trial were flawed. But Reiss finds no way in which that case should be applied to the Caraballo trial.
"Defendant was not charged with aiding and abetting ... and the court did not instruct the jury regarding the essential elements of an aiding and abetting violation," she wrote. "The evidence at trial was equally inconsistent with any suggestion that defendant was erroneously convicted of aiding and abetting a (firearms) violation without the requisite intent."
On a second front, in response to a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence at Caraballo's trial, Reiss argues -- as she did in March -- that the jury's verdicts were not inconsistent with that evidence.
"The jury found the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant caused Ms. Barratt's death, but failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant discharged the firearm that killed her," Reiss wrote in this week's decision. "Defendant argues that these conclusions cannot be reconciled with the evidence. The court disagrees."
The judge proceeds to reiterate, in detail, the evidence against Caraballo. That includes his own statements and cell-phone records as well as the testimony of multiple witnesses.
"Over the course of the trial, the government presented ample evidence to explain defendant's motive for killing Ms. Barratt, which was in retribution for her stealing a large amount of his drugs for which he owed his supplier payment," Reiss wrote. "Defendant, himself, discussed this motive with a number of witnesses."
Another person present for the shooting, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, was sentenced in December to serve 84 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges related to drugs and firearms. Makhanda-Lopez testified at Caraballo's trial, and he is mentioned several times in the latest decision by Reiss.
"Neither the government nor defendant presented any evidence to suggest that Joshua Lopez had an independent motive to kill Ms. Barratt," Reiss wrote. "Rather, the evidence consistently revealed that, at every step in the conspiracy, he acted at (Caraballo's) direction and subject to his supervision."
The jury's conclusion that Caraballo was guilty of causing Barratt's death but could not be convicted of pulling the trigger "was fully consistent with the limited forensic evidence collected at the scene of the crime," the judge wrote.
"It was also consistent with defendant counsel's repeated and vigorous argument that Mr. Lopez shot Ms. Barratt.," Reiss added. "The unintended consequences of this argument may have been that the jurors found it created reasonable doubt on the discharge component of the (firearm) offense, but that it did not alter their conclusion that, if Mr. Lopez discharged the Glock that killed Ms. Barratt, he did so only at defendant's direction."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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