On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Wachenfeld and Burling. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wachenfeld, J.
Eighty-four lives were lost in an unusually disastrous accident when a railroad train operated by the defendant was hurled from a trestle over which it was traveling in Middlesex County. The grand jury investigation resulted in 84 separate indictments being returned against the defendant, each for the crime of manslaughter, each charging the defendant "did feloniously kill and slay" one of the persons killed in the accident.
The State, through the prosecutor, in the County Court moved to consolidate all the indictments, asking they be tried together and at one time, relying on Rule 2:5-4. The defendant railroad objected to the relief so sought on the ground, amongst others, that there was but a single offense, if any, committed by the defendant and there could be a trial only on one charge of involuntary manslaughter.
The 84 indictments, it is conceded, arose out of the same transaction and the same facts would be submitted as evidence to prove each offense. The motion for consolidation was granted.
The defendant appealed under Rule 4:2-2(a) (4) and petitioned for leave to appeal under Rules 4:2-3 and 4:5.
Consent was given by the State and the Appellate Division granted the application for permission to appeal.
The order of consolidation was reversed by the Appellate Division, holding Rule 2:5-4, under which the order was made, "applies only when 'offenses' are charged in separate indictments, and the only indictments which may be consolidated for trial under this rule are those which charge distinct and separate offenses which could have been joined in a single indictment. Since the indictments which were consolidated under the order under appeal really charge only a single criminal offense, the trial court lacked power to grant the motion of the State."
This appeal is taken from the judgment of reversal, the State claiming it is in the public interest to secure a final determination as to the number of offenses involved in the Woodbridge wreck before proceeding further.
The question presented is: where a single act of the defendant results in the death of two or more persons under circumstances which would justify a conviction for manslaughter, has the offense of manslaughter been committed as many times as the number of persons killed?
Basically the inquiry also involves the principle and applicability of the plea of autrefois acquit and autrefois convict.
The railroad asserts unless the Appellate Division is upheld, it "will be deprived of a vital constitutional and basic right -- because the multiple indictments in this case do not really charge multiple offenses of manslaughter ...