Jury: Caraballo guilty on all but one charge

RUTLAND -- A federal jury found Frank Caraballo guilty of murder Wednesday, more than two years after authorities say he fatally shot a woman in Dummerston over missing narcotics.

Caraballo, 31, of Holyoke, Mass., was found guilty on all but one of the charges against him. Though jurors found him guilty of causing Melissa Barratt's death, they were not convinced he actually pulled the trigger of the gun used to kill her in July 2011. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to distribute more than 28 grams heroin, cocaine and crack and of being in felony possession of a firearm. He was, however, found not guilty of distributing more than 280 grams of drugs.

Caraballo is already serving a 16-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs. He likely faces 40 years to life in prison for the newest convictions in U.S. District Court.

The prosecution accused Caraballo of murdering Melissa Barratt, who made money selling drugs for him, with a gunshot to the head in the woods off Dummerston's East West Road. Caraballo had suspected Barratt of stealing a safe containing thousands of dollars of drugs, which her friend testified she indeed did.

The jury heard from numerous witnesses since the trial started on Monday, Sept. 16. The list of people that took the stand included a former associate who claimed to have been at the murder scene, government officials with specialties regarding aspects of the investigation, Vermont State Troopers, confidential informants and a bail bondsman.

Mark Kaplan, one of the lawyers defending Caraballo in court, told the Reformer he is pleased the jury believed his client did not pull the trigger and that they felt there was not enough evidence to prove he had distributed more than 280 grams of narcotics.

"It essentially means the jury agreed with our position," Kaplan said "It was clear to me that the jury did not put a lot faith in the government's lay witnesses."

Kaplan also said the only testimony suggesting Caraballo had fired the shot that killed Barratt came from Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, Caraballo's former driver who admitting to taking the gun from its safe and loading it for Caraballo. He mentioned he will file a motion to set aside the murder charge with the argument that the evidence to support the jury's verdict was not sufficient. He said he had 20 days to do so.

Kaplan also said Caraballo's sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

He and Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf, one of the prosecutors (along with Joe Perella), delivered their closing arguments Tuesday, one day after Caraballo took the witness stand to tell the court he was not even in Vermont when Barratt died. He said he was being driven to Holyoke, Mass., at the time of Barratt's murder.

Van de Graaf, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, acknowledged Caraballo's statements but said they did not make any sense. He said Caraballo was quoted as saying Barratt "was going to pay" if he did not get his drugs back.

Van de Graaf told members of the jury they had to trust their instincts when gauging the credibility of the witnesses.

"Every day you make judgments on people's believability," he said. Makhanda-Lopez is the brother of one Caraballo's half-brothers and Kirstin Waterman, a witness who admitted to selling drugs for Caraballo and who said she was once in a romantic relationship with him and had a baby with his brother, with whom she is now in a relationship. Van de Graaf said these people, who consider Caraballo to be family, had no reason to portray the defendant any worse than he truly is.

He told the jury Caraballo got rid of the two cell phones he was using at the time of Barratt's death and bought a new one. Van de Graaf also said ballistics analysis and Lopez' testimony were consistent with all other evidence and Caraballo did not ask for 20 minutes how Barratt died when informed of her death during his post-arrest interview two years ago. This implies he already knew Barratt had been murdered because he was there when it happened, according to Van de Graaf.

Kaplan, when he was able to address the jurors, said the prosecution failed to prove his client pulled the trigger and reminded them there was no murder weapon, fingerprints or gunshot residue to tie him to Barratt's death. He reiterated this sentiment to the Reformer on Wednesday afternoon.

He also said "there should be a certain quality to the witnesses," but most have been in trouble with the law and given cooperation agreements in exchange for their testimonies. Either way, each witness testified only to Caraballo's character or personality, he said, and one, Makhanda-Lopez, claimed to have seen Caraballo murder Barratt.

Kaplan said it is possible Makhanda-Lopez pulled the trigger that fateful day in the woods of Dummerston. He even showed a photograph of Makhanda-Lopez posing with a pump-action shotgun and said the man has "a fascination with firearms," whereas Caraballo testified that he never saw it necessary to carry a gun for his drug operation.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.


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