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State v. Peterson

Decided: June 23, 1952.


On appeal from the Cumberland County Court, Criminal Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Oliphant, Wachenfeld, Burling and Jacobs. For reversal -- Justices Heher and Brennan. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wachenfeld, J. William J. Brennan, Jr., J. (dissenting). Heher, J., joins in this opinion.


This is a capital case in which the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree without a recommendation and it is contended there was error in the charge, the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's verdict, alleging there was no evidence of an intent to take life, and that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

The facts are not complicated nor difficult. The decedent, a woman, Walter Lee Herring, was killed at about 1:30 in the morning of August 18, 1951, in a trailer owned by the defendant, Peterson. Death was instantaneous, caused by a bullet from a rifle admittedly belonging to the defendant. The missile entered her body under the right arm pit and lodged itself in her heart.

The defendant, married but separated from his wife for a number of years, in 1943 met the decedent in Florida and, except for short intervals of time, lived with her at various places until July, 1951. They came to New Jersey from Florida in that month and were accompanied by one Felix Bethel, with whom they had been in close association for over two years. All three had lived at the home of the decedent's mother. Having heard that the relationship between Bethel and the decedent had become something more than platonic, the defendant declared: "* * * I was through with her, and that is when she moved off with Mr. Bethel on this farm out there on the lake somewhere." This was about a month before the shooting.

All three were employed locally. The defendant worked at a cannery and as a farm field laborer, as did also Bethel and the decedent. Despite the odd relationship existing, they apparently still were not outwardly unfriendly. On the day of the murder all had worked together, Peterson and the deceased having gone to collect the pay of all three, who met in Bethel's room to apportion amongst themselves the amount to which each was entitled.

They had planned to go into town to see a motion picture show. Bethel changed his mind and the decedent and the defendant went alone in his car. Arriving too late for the picture, they went to a tavern for a few drinks. The defendant then took his companion back to Bethel's one-room apartment and departed to visit a friend. A short time later he returned to the rooming house. Upon being admitted to the room occupied by Bethel and the deceased, he requested her keys to the trailer, stating he intended to get her clothes and bring them to her, but she countered with the suggestion she accompany him for this purpose.

They drove to the trailer, consisting of two rooms, a combination kitchen and living room and a bedroom at the rear. To the right and just behind the doorway was a closet with a door hinged on the right hand side, which, when it swung outward, covered most of the door space. The deceased entered the bedroom while the defendant remained in the front room. While they were removing clothing from a dresser and closet, an argument ensued in which the decedent is alleged to have threatened to kill the defendant. It is suggested the door was open, preventing them from seeing one another at the time.

The State's primary case rested upon two confessions introduced into evidence and oral admissions made by the defendant to the Chief of Police. In the first statement the defendant said:

"I got out [of the car] and opened the door and turned the lights on. She went in the bedroom, pulled out this paring knife and got behind the door, and she told me she wasn't going to move anything

out. She said, 'If she couldn't have me nobody else was going to have me.'

She started out and I went and got the rifle, put the cartridge in. She went behind the door and I shot through the door. She went past me and got in the car and I didn't know whether she was going to tear up the car like she done before, and so I fired another shot. She didn't say anything more and I seen her fall over. I sit her back up in the car, and started for the hospital."

The later confession, given the same day, was in greater detail and was in question and answer form. ...

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