High court: No new trial for killer
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | October 06,2012
The Vermont Supreme Court says Jonathan Bruno should not get a new trial.
Bruno is serving 35 years to life, having been convicted of second-degree murder for the 2007 stabbing of John Baptie over a $40 drug debt.
In an 18-page ruling issued Friday, the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling denying Bruno’s request for a new trial. The request was based on a new witness coming forward, along with claims that two jurors should have been excluded and that the jury instructions were unacceptably vague.
Bruno had claimed self-defense, saying Baptie came at him with a pipe behind the Rutland Walmart, but his story was not supported at trial by any witnesses. A witness came forward after the trial claiming to have seen Baptie with a pipe.
For a new witness to trigger a new trial, the court must find that the new evidence would “likely lead to an acquittal,” according to a precedent cited in the decision. Both the trial judge and Supreme Court found issues with the witness’s credibility.
The decision noted the witness’s use of Suboxone to suppress drug cravings as well as a history of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The ruling also said she had once been hospitalized for mental health issues.
The court also found that, even if credible, the witness’s testimony likely would have been outweighed by the prosecution’s evidence, noting four witnesses testified they did not see a weapon in Baptie’s hands.
“In fact, the new witness’s testimony was even inconsistent with the defendant’s own account of how he was attacked,” the decision read. “(T)he trial court could reasonably have concluded that in the context of the other evidence in the case, the new witness’s testimony simply did not make sense.”
Bruno’s attorneys argued that one juror should have been dismissed for initially expressing unease with the idea of a defendant not taking the stand and saying that the drug issues involved in the case might color her judgment.
The decision held that the defense’s questions were “amorphous” and that the juror answered “more pointed questions very directly and did not appear to be struggling with the issue.”
The defense then used its final peremptory challenge to remove that juror, which left them unable to remove another juror whose brother worked as a corrections officer. Bruno’s attorney argued that the questionnaire asking about such relationships indicated that Bruno had spent time in jail, a fact that could have been prejudicial.
The court, however, did not find the indication so clear and cited precedent saying “a brief reference to a defendant’s incarceration is not enough ... to undermine the presumption (of innocence) and cause a mistrial.”
Finally, the court found no merit to the argument that the jury instructions were unclear on how Bruno’s claims of diminished capacity due to drug use should be considered.
“The instruction made it clear that an essential element of the second-degree murder charge was the requisite intent of wantonness, and that evidence that defendant was under the influence of drugs and that he suffered from a mental condition may be relevant,” the justices wrote. “The instructions advise the jury twice that if it found diminished capacity, it could not convict of second-degree murder.”