On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wachenfeld, J.
The defendant, Arthur J. Huff, was indicted for the murder of his wife, Ruth. The trial jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree with a recommendation of life imprisonment. Upon the imposition of that sentence, the defendant appealed.
With the exception of the antecedent events, the facts are not greatly in dispute, although the inferences to be drawn therefrom vary to a considerable degree.
The family consisted of the husband and wife and three daughters, Janet 13, Joyce 14, and Shirley 16. Violence flared frequently in the many embittered conflicts between the defendant and the deceased prior to the event culminating in her death.
The murder occurred on January 25, 1953. About ten days prior thereto, in the presence of the two daughters, the defendant assaulted his wife, choking her while she was sitting in the living room, striking her with his fist, locked the door to prevent her leaving, and chased her around the first floor. When she finally escaped and was in the car with her two children attempting to leave, he tore out the ignition wires to prevent the use of the car. His wife and daughters fled and sought shelter elsewhere.
Choking his wife seems to have been common conduct, made more impressive by opening a penknife on one occasion and threatening her, saying, "I will get you right this time." The wife and daughters apparently thought it necessary to leave home quite often and go elsewhere for protection.
At another time one of the daughters ran from the house screaming for a neighbor to call the police, and there was testimony that the telephone wires in the home had been torn out by the defendant so a call for aid could not be made from there.
Most of the difficulty encountered was attributable to the wife's employment in a factory near Phillipsburg, which her husband had been insistent she give up. He was suspicious of her relations with male employees there, and the coolness
which he encountered on her part he imputed to the new interests and the environment associated with her employment.
Black and blue marks on the decedent's head, neck, and legs, exhibited more than once, were mutely symbolic of the violence she endured at the hands of an irate husband whose baseless pangs of jealousy rose quickly to destructive heights.
The decedent and two of her children fled from the house on January 15 and stayed away a number of days. They returned about six days before the wife was killed, but she was not alone in the house with her husband until January 25. The three daughters on that day had left the home prior to the wife's meeting her death at about 3 P.M.
From the police testimony, plus the husband's statement, it appears he chased his wife from her bedroom, through the hallway, to the top of the stairs, grabbed her from the rear by both shoulders or by the throat, put his knee in her back and pushed or shoved her down the stairs, her head hitting the telephone table at the pottom and breaking her neck, causing instantaneous death.
The defendant did not seek medical aid to establish the fact of death nor to attempt to prevent it. On the contrary, he dragged his wife's body through the first floor, down the cellar steps, dug a grave in the coal bin, and buried it there, covering it with coal. He cleaned up the blood, burned his wife's dress and buttons in the furnace, concealed her car keys on a sill in the garage, and put her rings, cross and chain in a tool chest in the garage and then reported to the police that his wife was missing.
On the 18th of March, the police, due to Huff's behavior, became suspicious and undertook a search of the home at 51 Jefferson Street. Noting the peculiar arrangement of the coal in the cellar, an officer borrowed a shovel and began digging beneath it, whereupon the defendant hurriedly fled from the premises. He went to a store in the neighborhood and there unsuccessfully tried to telephone his lawyer. While attempting to leave, he was apprehended by the police and taken to headquarters.
The defendant made a voluntary written statement in which he frankly admitted the original report to the police about his wife being missing was sheer fabrication. He described how she came to his bedroom on the day in question, while he was still partly asleep, for the purpose of getting her clothes to leave him, and "She was at the top of the stairs, and I grabbed her like this. I grabbed her from the back of the shoulder close to the neck. I pulled her back towards me. She twisted and knocked me off balance, throwing me back, and the next thing I knew she was falling down the stairs."
Although the confession does not include it, the police testified that the defendant, in re-enacting the crime, showed how he had placed his hands on his wife's shoulders and with his knee had shoved or pushed her down the stairs.
The defendant's attitude toward his victim is perhaps best portrayed by his actions and what took place, as outlined in his confession, after her death. He ripped off her clothes, violated her body in a most despicable and ghastly manner, too revolting to be reprinted here but detailed in his statement.
Other members of the family were away at the time of Ruth's death, and the State reasoned from this fact that the defendant planned to kill his wife and awaited the opportunity when no one else was in the house. The State proceeded upon the theory that the wife met her death at the foot of the steps as a result of the defendant's assault and his pushing her down the stairs, with intent to take her life.
The defense was a complete denial, the husband asserting death was accidental, involving no lethal weapon, and was merely an unfortunate incident.
Several assignments of error bear upon the sufficiency of the evidence, it being asserted no substantial basis can be found in the proofs for the finding of the mental state which is an ingredient of murder in the first degree.
While a juror was being examined on his voir dire, the following took place:
"Q. What is your religion? A. I am --
The Court: Pardon me; that I will ...