CSAO: Report of the State's Attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford Concerning the Death of Jesus Espinoza on May 15, 2013, in the City of Hartford

Report of the State's Attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford Concerning the Death of Jesus Espinoza on May 15, 2013, in the City of Hartford

Introduction | Background | Circumstances of the Incident | Seized Evidence | Post-mortem Examination | Applicable Law and Analysis Concerning the Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers| Conclusion | Footnotes | Appendices

INTRODUCTION

On May 15, 2013, Hartford Police Officer Johnny Muniz and Officer Richard Cotto responded to a disturbance call at 24 Heath Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Officer Cotto was confronted by a Jesus Espinoza, who lunged at him with a weapon; and Officer Cotto fired one shot from his department issued firearm, striking Mr. Espinoza in the chest, causing his death.

Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a, provides as follows: “Whenever a peace officer, in the performance of his duties, uses deadly physical force upon another person and such other person dies as a result thereof, the Division of Criminal Justice shall cause an investigation to be made and shall have the responsibility of determining whether the use of deadly physical force was appropriate under section 53a-22.”

This State’s Attorney is mindful of a policy recently enacted by the State’s Attorneys whereby a State’s Attorney, other than the State’s Attorney for the jurisdiction where the use of deadly force incident occurred, would be responsible for such investigations. However, as this incident occurred prior to the policy change, the undersigned State’s Attorney, upon notification by Hartford Police of the deadly force incident by one of its officers, assumed responsibility, and requested the assistance of the Connecticut State Police Central District Major Crime Squad (CDMCS) to complete this investigation.

BACKGROUND

On May 15, 2013, at approximately 10:01 p.m., Hartford Police received a 911 call, reporting a disturbance at 24 Heath Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The two family residence at that location was owned by Pedro Santos, who lived on the first floor of the three bedroom apartment. He rented out each of the three bedrooms on the second floor to separate tenants, who shared the kitchen and bathroom on the second floor as common-area spaces.

Pedro Santos reported that approximately two months prior to this incident, Jesus Espinoza approached him looking to rent a room. He stated that Espinoza told him that he was a construction worker; and, Santos stated that in the time that Espinoza lived there, he never presented any problems to him, or the other tenants.

Santos stated that on May 15, 2013, at approximately 9:00 p.m., he saw Espinoza out in the yard. He stated that based upon the look on Espinoza’s face, and the slurring of his words, he believed that he may have been drinking. Santos invited him into his apartment, where they had a few beers and played dominoes, as they had done many times before. Other witnesses report that there were approximately five or six people who were in the apartment during this time, drinking and playing dominoes, when a fight broke out between Santos and Espinoza, resulting in Espinoza stabbing Santos. Santos reported that after he (Santos) won four consecutive games, Espinoza stood up and demanded that Santos ask him for forgiveness; but he (Santos) didn’t know what Espinoza was talking about and refused. However, another witness reported that the fight began when Santos referred to one of the ladies in the apartment as “crazy,” and that upset Espinoza. The argument turned physical, and Santos reported that Espinoza quickly reached out and hit his left forearm with “something.” Santos felt a stinging sensation, and then saw blood coming from his arm. He realized that Espinoza had cut him, and told officers that he thought Espinoza cut him with a knife or bottle. He reported that he felt “faint” and went to his bedroom.

Elba Pagan, who was in Santos’s apartment during this time, stated that when she tried to break up the fight between Pedro and Espinoza, she got blood on her jacket, which came from a cut near Santos’ elbow.

Espinoza went upstairs to the room rented by Jose Figueroa and his wife, and asked them if they would call the police, because Pedro hit him. They reported that they heard the yelling and banging coming from Pedro’s apartment, and knew that they had been drinking and playing dominoes. Jose Figueroa reported that Espinoza had blood on his shirt and hands, and a “black and blue” bump on the right side of his lower lip. When the tenant handed Espinoza the phone to call police, someone named “Luis” knocked on the back door to the second floor apartment, wanting to fight Espinoza, because Espinoza fought Pedro. It was reported that the two fell to the floor fighting, and it was at this point that the second floor tenants called 911 for police assistance.

CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE INCIDENT

Hartford Police Officers Johnny Muniz and Richard Cotto responded to 24 Heath Street, where they were directed to the rear bedroom of the first floor apartment. There they found a Hispanic male, identified as Pedro Santos, who was lying on a bed and bleeding, and reported that he had been assaulted with a glass bottle. There was an uninjured Hispanic male and female in the bedroom with Santos, who told officers that the person who assaulted Santos was on the second floor, and directed officers to his bedroom. Officers called for an ambulance for Santos.

As the officers walked up the stairs to the second floor, they observed drops of a red, blood-like substance, leading from the kitchen of Santos’ apartment to the second floor apartment door. There was also a red blood-like substance on the floor of the second floor stair landing; and a red, blood-like substance on the door panel of the front door leading to the second floor apartment. (Appendix A)

Santos and the second floor tenants reported that they heard officers identifying themselves as Hartford Police Officers, and knocking loudly at the bedroom door of Jesus Espinoza, ordering him to open the door and to come out of the bedroom. When they received no response, Officer Johnny Muniz went downstairs to determine if Santos had a key. Muniz reported that Santos informed him that each tenant had his own key; and gave the officers authority to forcibly enter Espinoza’s bedroom. Officers kicked in the door, and upon gaining entry, a Hispanic male, later identified as Jesus Espinoza, was lying on the bed, but immediately stood and lunged at Officer Cotto with what was later determined to be a box cutter type knife. Officer Muniz reported that the box cutter came within inches of Officer Cotto’s stomach. Officer Cotto discharged one shot from his service weapon at close range, causing Espinoza to fall back towards the bed.[1] Officer Muniz stated that he pulled Officer Cotto out of the room and called for additional police personnel and an ambulance for Espinoza.

State Police spoke to Jose Figueroa, who stated that he was in the kitchen when he saw the officers kick in Espinoza’s door. He said that he couldn’t see Espinoza from his angle, but he heard the officer yelling “come here, come here,” and stated that Jesus attacked the officer. He stated that the other officer came running up the stairs, and then he heard a noise sounding like a [gun] shot. He reported seeing the officer back out of the bedroom, holding his service weapon, and reported that he appeared “visibly shaken and pale.”[2] Figueroa stated that he looked into Espinoza’s room, and saw Espinoza lying on the bed, at which point, the officers ordered the witness back into his bedroom.

Julio Echevarria was at 24 Heath Street earlier in the day, when the dominoes game began. He left, and returned after 10:00 p.m., when he received a call about the fight which resulted in Pedro being “cut.” He said that when he arrived, he saw that Pedro had cuts on his arms, and saw blood on the wall and the door. He stated that he heard the officers kick in the door, and say three times, to drop what he had in his hands; and then heard a gunshot.

SEIZED EVIDENCE

Connecticut State Police Central District Major Crime Squad (CDMCS) responded to 24 Heath Street in Hartford, Connecticut, to conduct the use of deadly force investigation. Pursuant to a search warrant, issued by a Superior Court Judge, troopers seized 25 evidence items, including Officer Cotto’s duty weapon (Appendix E, and photo 45); an expended shell casing (Appendix F, photo 61); and two box cutters seized from within the bedroom of Jesus Espinoza - one was on the bed, marked by evidence marker #9; a second was in a sneaker, marked by evidence marker #10 (Appendix E - Appendix F). The scene was thoroughly documented by reports and photographs. On July 15, 2013, Central District Major Crime Squad (CDMCS) submitted Officer Cotto’s duty weapon, a .40 caliber handgun, bearing serial number UCB518 to the State of Connecticut Forensic laboratory for analysis, along with an expended Smith and Wesson .40 caliber shell casing, which was seized from the floor of Jesus Espinoza’s bedroom; and a projectile, which was recovered from Jesus Espinoza’s body during the post-mortem examination, turned over to the Connecticut State Police, and submitted to the State Forensic Science Laboratory for analysis.

On August 8, 2013, the firearms examiner’s examination revealed: that the Glock, semi-automatic .40 caliber, firearm was found to operate without malfunction; that the magazine was compatible with the submitted firearm, and had a capacity of 15 rounds, and contained 14 Winchester Smith and Wesson brand jacketed hollow points; that the expended shell casing was a Smith and Wesson .40 caliber cartridge case with Glock style firing pin, and was positively identified as having been fired from the submitted Glock, .40 caliber firearm; further, that the recovered projectile was consistent with the 14 submitted cartridges, but lacked sufficient areas of agreement to make a positive identification. It was consistent with the test fire from the submitted Glock; but could not be eliminated or identified as being fired from that firearm.

POST-MORTEM EXAMINATION

On May 17, 2013, Associate Medical Examiner Frank Evangelista performed a post-mortem examination on the body of Jesus Espinoza, at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Farmington, Connecticut. Evidence of trauma was documented as: two red/brown abrasions on the right side of the head; a blue contusion on the right inner, lower lip; a red/brown abrasion on the palm of the left hand; and a gunshot wound on the mid-left upper chest. There was an area of gunpowder stippling on the skin surface, which would be consistent with the weapon being fired at close proximity to the chest area.

The path of the wound entered the left upper chest, perforated the left rib cage, perforated the left lung, the heart, left diaphragm, left lobe of the liver, the stomach, and grazed the left kidney. A single metallic projectile was recovered within the soft tissue of the left lower back. The projectile was turned over to the Connecticut State Police. No exit gunshot wound was identified.

A blood sample was submitted for toxicology examination. No drugs were detected;however results showed an Ethanol level of .32%.

Dr. Evangelista certified the cause of death of Jesus Espinoza as gunshot wound to the chest;and the manner of death, a homicide.

APPLICABLE LAW AND ANALYSIS CONCERNING THE USE OF DEADLY FORCE BY POLICE OFFICERS

Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(c) provides in pertinent part: “A peace officer … is justified in using deadly physical force upon another person … only when he … reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”

Self-defense claims, under Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22 are evaluated under a subjective-objective test, requiring the trier to determine whether, based upon all the evidence, the defendant honestly believed that deadly force, rather than some lesser degree of force, was necessary to repel the alleged attack. If the trier determines that the defendant honestly believed that deadly force was necessary, the trier is then required to determine if the defendant’s belief was reasonable. State v. Prioleau, 235 Conn. 274, 287 (1995).

The United States Supreme Court, on the issue of the use of deadly force by police, stated in Graham v. O’Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989), that:

“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight…The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation…one of the factors in determining reasonableness is whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.”

The information known to Officer Cotto at the time that he discharged his firearm striking Jesus Espinoza was that he had been dispatched to 24 Heath Street on a disturbance complaint. Upon his arrival, he learned that a person had been stabbed by Espinoza, who used some type of weapon, either a knife or bottle. There were drops of a blood-like substance that led from the first floor apartment, to the second floor; with a spatter of a blood-like substance dripping down the door leading to the second floor apartment. Witnesses pointed out the bedroom rented by Espinoza, who ignored officers demands to open the locked door. After forcibly entering the room, the officer was met by a male, who was initially lying down, but immediately lunged at the officer with a sharp object, coming within inches of the officer’s stomach.

“The appropriate inquiry is whether the officer acted reasonably, not whether [he] had less intrusive alternatives available to them …. Officers need not avail themselves of the least intrusive means of responding to an exigent situation. They need only act within that range of conduct we identify as reasonable”… Scott v. Henrich, 39 F. 3d. 912, 915 (9th Cir. 1992).

CONCLUSION

Based upon all the facts and circumstances as outlined above, I find that the actions of Officer Cotto were objectively reasonable, and therefore justified, under Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(c); and that no further action will be taken by the Division of Criminal Justice.

Respectfully Submitted,

Gail P. Hardy
Hartford State’s Attorney

FOOTNOTES

[1] The Connecticut State Police did not document the dimensions of Jesus Espinoza’s bedroom. Nevertheless, the room was photographed and several of those pictures are submitted as Appendices B-D with this report.

[2] Although Connecticut State Police requested a statement from Officer Cotto, upon the advice of his union attorney, he declined to submit a statement.

APPENDICES

Appendix A - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 168K

Appendix B - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 156K

Appendix C - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 134K

Appendix D - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 183K

Appendix E - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 190K

Appendix F - PDF Format (Adobe Reader Required) - Size 303K




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