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State v. Webster

Supreme Court of Vermont

October 20, 2017

State of Vermont
v.
Matthew Webster

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division

          Alison S. Arms, J. Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and David Tartter, Special Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua S. O'Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ., and Dooley, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Defendant appeals his convictions for second-degree murder, reckless endangerment, and careless and negligent operation following a trial by jury. Defendant challenges the denial of his motion to suppress statements he gave to the police following his arrest, an evidentiary ruling at trial permitting certain expert testimony, the trial court's refusal to charge voluntary manslaughter, the denial of his motion for a new trial based on the prosecutor's statements in closing argument, and the trial court's imposition of a sentence of forty years to life on the murder conviction. We affirm.

         ¶ 2. Defendant claims errors related to various stages of the proceedings, and the facts common to all of his claims are as follows. During the afternoon of September 25, 2013, defendant was involved in an argument with his then-wife over defendant's continuing contact with another woman, with whom he had been having an affair for about a year. Defendant's wife had been aware of the affair for about nine months. Despite defendant's assurances to his wife he would end his relationship with the other woman, he had not. The fight with his wife on this day began during a telephone call that defendant made to his wife as he was driving to meet the other woman, ostensibly to deliver the news that their affair was over. Defendant picked up the other woman at her apartment and drove to a parking area so they could talk. Defendant parked out of sight because his wife was threatening to come to the other woman's apartment. While defendant was talking with the other woman, his wife called defendant several times, yelling at him and threatening to "kick [the other woman's] ass." Eventually, defendant dropped the other woman off at her apartment. While doing so, defendant noticed his wife parked nearby.

         ¶ 3. After leaving the apartment, defendant and his wife met at a gas station on Main Street in St. Albans, where she told him she was angry and sick of the situation. During their conversation, she took off her wedding rings, as she had done during previous arguments. Although his wife wanted to continue talking, defendant wanted to go to his father's house. Defendant left the gas station, driving north on Main Street at a high rate of speed. Defendant's wife followed a distance behind him in her car.

         ¶ 4. At the intersection of Main Street and Lower Newton Road in downtown St. Albans, defendant ran a red light. At this same time, a car being driven by Anna Alger, accompanied by her fiancé, was attempting to turn left onto Main Street from Lower Newton Road and was cut off by defendant's car. Alger was able to avoid a collision and, as defendant's car passed, she made a gesture of arrant disdain at him with her middle finger. Defendant's wife saw defendant run the red light and called him to tell him about it, but he did not answer his phone.

         ¶ 5. Shortly after passing through the intersection, defendant pulled his car to the side of the road and stopped. Alger pulled in behind him and also stopped. Unbeknownst to Alger, defendant had been contemplating shooting himself and had been driving with a loaded nine-millimeter pistol on his lap. Both defendant and Alger got out of their cars, with defendant carrying his pistol. Alger began walking toward defendant, and as she did so, she waved her arms and pointed at him, yelling, "[W]hat kind a piece of shit do you think you are?" When Alger got within about six feet of defendant, he opened fire with his pistol, firing up to eleven shots while emptying the clip. Alger was hit seven or eight times. He put another clip into the pistol while Alger's fiancé got out of their car. Defendant pointed the gun at Alger's fiancé and pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. As defendant ran away, Alger's fiancé summoned help from a passerby and went to check on Alger. She was already dead. The shooting, which occurred shortly after 5:00 p.m., was seen by several witnesses, including defendant's wife, who went up to him after the shooting, and saw him point the pistol at his head and pull the trigger. Again, the pistol did not fire. Defendant's wife took the pistol from him, as well as a second one he was carrying. The St. Albans police arrived at the scene very shortly after the incident and arrested defendant.

         I. Motion to Suppress

         ¶ 6. Defendant moved to suppress statements he gave to a detective at the police station because, according to defendant, he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Fifth Amendment rights. Specifically, defendant argues that he invoked his right to counsel when, following his arrest, he asked the detective who was interrogating him, "[W]ould they be able to come right now so I could talk to you, lawyer?" According to defendant, the detective's "nonanswer" to his "direct question" violated the requirements of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and Vermont's Public Defender Act (PDA), 13 V.S.A. § 5237.[1]

         ¶ 7. After the shooting, a police detective arrested defendant and took him to the St. Albans Police Department. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., an officer, Detective Couture, introduced himself to defendant as a detective and brought defendant into an interview room. The following exchange took place:

[Defendant]: Hello.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Hi.
[Defendant]: I'm Matt.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Are you Matt?
[Defendant]: I was pulled over to let her go by because I was going to kill myself.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay. Hang on, hang, hang on.
[Defendant]: Then she got out.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Wait, wait, wait, wait.
[Defendant]: Are you a doctor?
DET. SGT. COUTURE: No, I'm a detective.
[Defendant]: I didn't take any of my medication in the morning. I'm sick. I don't feel well at all. (indiscernible)
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay.
[Defendant]: I didn't mean it. I didn't mean anything.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Can I, can I talk to you?
[Defendant]: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Can I talk to you? Okay.
[Defendant]: I'm sorry.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay.
[Defendant]: I'm sorry.
. . . .
[Defendant]: I was trying-I'll tell you everything.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay.
[Defendant]: I'll tell you everything.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay.
[Defendant]: I swear to God I won't give you any problem. I swear to God.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay.
[Defendant]: I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. (indiscernible)
. . . .
DET. SGT. COUTURE: We just need to figure out what's going on, okay?
[Defendant]: I'm going to-it's been-my counselor-.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay. Hang on. Yeah, right here.
[Defendant]: My counselor quit. My counselor quit, and then I (indiscernible) I'm so sorry.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Hang on. Hang on. Okay. In order for me to talk to you, okay, I got to read what is called the Miranda warning, okay?
[Defendant]: Okay. Yup. Yup.
DET. SGT. COUTURE: I am a detective with the St. Albans Police Department, okay?
[Defendant]: Okay.
. . . .
[Defendant]: I'm so-I used to be such a good-I didn't never- I never done anything wrong. I mean, I got in a car accident, and I got a careless and negligent out of it. This-I swear to God-
DET. SGT. COUTURE: What's your name?
[Defendant]: Is she okay? Matt Webster.
. . . .
DET. SGT. COUTURE: Okay. Before I go any further, I've got to read you what's called the M ...

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