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State v. Griffith

Decided: June 11, 1951.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MILDRED J. GRIFFITH, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Jacobs, Eastwood and Bigelow. The opinion of the court was delivered by Eastwood, J.A.D.

Eastwood

[14 NJSuper Page 79] The defendant, Mildred J. Griffith, seeks to void the judgment of conviction and sentence imposed

upon her by the Middlesex County Court, following her plea of non vult to a charge of having committed the crime of atrocious assault and battery.

The defendant was taken into custody on November 6, 1948, and arraigned before the local police the same evening. She entered a plea of guilty and was committed to the Middlesex County Workhouse to await the action of the grand jury. On three separate occasions the warden of the workhouse discussed with her the advisability of signing a waiver of indictment and seeking a trial before the court without a jury. On the first two occasions she did not sign the waiver, but did so on the 16th of November, 1948. On the last-mentioned date she appeared, without the assistance of counsel, before the county court, when she entered a plea of non vult and was committed to the Clinton Reformatory for Women for classification for a period of 90 days. She was returned to the Middlesex County Court on April 14, 1949, at which time the court sentenced her to the Women's Reformatory at Clinton for an indefinite term. On January 17, 1951, the defendant applied for and obtained a writ of habeas corpus , on the ground that her imprisonment is illegal; that she signed the waiver of indictment and entered a plea of non vult upon the advice of the warden of the Middlesex County Workhouse, who assured her that she would either be placed on probation or would receive a suspended sentence. The Superior Court, Law Division, Union County, at the conclusion of the habeas corpus proceeding, dismissed the writ.

The crime of atrocious assault and battery is a high misdemeanor (R.S. 2:110-1), and the punishment therefor may be a fine of not more than $2,000 or imprisonment not exceeding seven years, or both (R.S. 2:103-5). The defendant being a female over the age of 16, she was committed to the women's reformatory (R.S. 30:4-154, as amended by L. 1946, c. 312, p. 1025, sec. 2), for an indeterminate sentence not in excess of the maximum for such crime (R.S. 30:4-155), as amended L. 1946, p. 1025, sec. 3.

The only substantial question that we need to discuss and decide is whether the defendant was deprived of her constitutional right to counsel to assist her in her defense, in violation of Article I, par. 10, of the 1947 State Constitution, as implemented by Rule 2:12-1, and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Art. I, par. 10, of the New Jersey Constitution reads as follows:

"In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury; to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; and to have the assistance of counsel in his defense."

Rule 2:12-1 provides as follows:

"(a) If the defendant appears in court, without counsel, the court shall advise him of his right to counsel and assign counsel to represent him at the trial unless he elects to proceed without counsel or is able to obtain counsel. In cases other than murder, counsel may be assigned by the court from the members of the county bar, in alphabetical rotation in general. Law clerks and law students residing in the county shall be assigned to them, wherever possible, to act as clerks in the investigation and preparation of such cases."

The defendant argues that her constitutional rights were violated from the very inception of the charges against her, in that at no time was she informed of her right to nor was counsel appointed to advise and aid her in discussing her case and the course most desirable for her to pursue, particularly with respect to the proposed signing of the waiver of indictment and her ensuing appearance before the county court when she entered a plea of non vult.

We have carefully examined the record and are convinced that the defendant fully comprehended the meaning and purport of the waiver of indictment. At the habeas corpus proceedings, she testified that she discussed this matter with the warden on three separate occasions, the first, two or three weeks after being ...


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