Because State Presented No Proof Defendant Knew of Victim’s Unique Habit, Felony Murder Charge Was Dismissed

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

In a criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut concluded that the State did not establish probable cause to prosecute a defendant for felony murder, and as such dismissed the charge due to a lack of proof.

Case Background

In this case, the victim’s body was discovered in his apartment on August 25, 2005, and death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head. His leather pouch with money and personal identification were missing. The defendant admitted that she struck him several times in self-defense and took a fresh shirt from his closet because hers was covered with blood. Nonetheless, she was charged with murder, felony murder, robbery, and other violations of State law.

At trial, the victim’s daughter testified that she was at her father’s house on Father’s Day two months prior, at which point he gave her cash he retrieved from his freezer. She explained that her father “was in the habit of keeping cash in tin foil packets” in his refrigerator, freezer, sock drawer, and under the mattress. A neighbor confirmed the victim’s money-storing habits, but conceded she never actually saw the money. She also stated that prior to this incident she gave the victim $2,000. There was additional testimony that a thorough search of the victim’s apartment did not reveal any money in these secret locations.

However, the victim’s daughter found two envelopes located in a jacket inside the victim’s closet. One envelope was for the neighbor and contained $1,400, while the other had several thousand dollars in cash. Furthermore, a search warrant was validly executed on the defendant’s residence, but none of the missing items were found there.

The State’s Argument

The defendant was charged with felony murder, which under Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-54c reads as follows:

A person is guilty of murder when, acting either alone or with one or more persons, he commits or attempts to commit robbery [or another enumerated offense] … and, in the course of and in furtherance of such crime or of flight therefore, he … causes the death of a person other than one of the participants.

In this case, the State argued that the defendant killed the victim while attempting to rob him. Thus, in order to prosecute the defendant for felony murder, the State had to establish probable cause that “the defendant robbed [the victim], that is, that she stole his property through the use of force, and in the course of and in furtherance of the robbery, she caused his death.”

The State may introduce habit evidence “to prove that the conduct of that person… on a particular occasion was in conformity with that habit.” In this case, the habit in question was the storage of money by the victim in rather unorthodox locations, meant to prove that he “possessed money in such locations at the time of his death on or about August 24, 2005.”

In light of this evidence, along with the missing wallet, his violent death, and the absence of money in these locations, the State asserted that “there exists probable cause to believe that [the victim] was killed in the course of a robbery.”

Questions Raised

While the habit evidence in this case was admissible, the weight it would receive depended on two factors: “the invariability of the habit and… the timeliness of observations that the person was acting in accordance with that habit.” The Superior Court noted that the real question was whether the victim had money in his freezer on the day of the murder, not two months prior.

It set forth other possible explanations for its absence, including the simple one of needing money and spending it, an inference bolstered by the amount short of the $2,000 given to him earlier. Another explanation was consolidation into a single envelope, located in the jacket.

Court’s Conclusion

Particularly damaging to the State’s case was that they presented no evidence that the defendant knew of the victim’s money-keeping habits. As the Superior Court concluded:

To accept the state’s theory of the crime, one would have to conclude that the defendant, with no advance knowledge of money locations, so thoroughly searched [the victim’s] apartment so as to discover money secreted in foil packets in his freezer and an old leather pouch that resembled a cosmetic case, but did not discover several thousand dollars in the pocket of a coat hanging in a closet. Such a theory is not reasonable. Particularly since the defendant admitted taking a shirt from the closet after the attack. On the other hand, to conclude that the defendant took only the pouch and freezer money because she knew of Mr. Gordon’s habits would be based on speculation because there was no evidence offered to prove such knowledge.

When faced with any homicide crime, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.