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State v. Lucas

Decided: June 1, 1959.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ELBER COOPER LUCAS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Burling, Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Schettino. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J. Weintraub, C.J. (concurring). Jacobs and Schettino, JJ., concurring in result.

Burling

Defendant has taken an appeal to this court from a judgment of conviction entered pursuant to a jury verdict of murder in the first degree with recommendation of life imprisonment. 1947 Const., Art. VI, § V, par. 1 (c); R.R. 1:2-1(c).

Evidence was presented by the State that in the early hours of the rainy morning of March 14, 1956, some time about 4:00 A.M., a fire broke out in St. Mary's Cathedral and Rectory located on North Warren and Bank Streets in the City of Trenton. The fire, which lasted for 19 hours, destroyed the Cathedral and adjoining rectory which was also used as an office building. The death of Monsignor Richard T. Crean, Mary Brennan and Mary P. Donnellan, three occupants of the rectory, ensued as a result of the fire.

When the firemen arrived, shortly after 4:30 A.M., the only portion of the first floor of the rectory which was afire was a room utilized as an office located on the extreme left (southerly side) of the building adjacent to a funeral home. The upper floors of the rectory were ablaze, but the fire had not yet spread to the Cathedral building. Upon abatement of the flames, firemen entered and made an inspection of the building. The electrical wiring, heating equipment, incinerator, "everything" was checked by the Fire Department, but nothing was found indicating the origin of the blaze and the cause of the fire was officially listed as "unknown." However, the point of origin and path were ascertained to be in the previously mentioned office. Deputy Fire Chief Dovgala testified for the State as to his basis for opining that the fire started in the rear center portion of the rectory office and proceeded to a stairway in the rear of the office, reaching the upper floors via the stairway.

The Trenton Police Department also conducted an investigation into the origin of the fire. The debris on the floor of the rectory office was sifted. There was a huge pile of debris in the rear center portion of the office at about the believed point of origin of the fire. Eight fragments of

a glass container, which could not be identified by those familiar with the contents of the room, were found at the bottom or floor level of the pile of debris.

As a result of their investigation the police were of the opinion that the cause of the fire was other than accidental.

The layout and contents of the office were described by Edith Egan, who occupied the room during the day and was a receptionist and telephone operator employed by the Diocese of Trenton. The contents of the room were as follows: There was a large steel desk and chair which she utilized located towards the front of the room; against the wall on the left (facing the building from Warren Street) i.e., the wall next to the funeral home, there were five chairs which were sample chairs for a new high school; in the wall on the right, closest to the Cathedral and adjacent to the entrance hall, there was a fireplace. On the mantel were numerous telephone directories, for each of the counties in New Jersey and some for New York and Pennsylvania. In the front wall, adjacent to Warren Street, there were windows with full curtains. After business hours the curtains would be pulled halfway.

Some nine months after the fire, on the morning of December 17, 1956, at approximately 2:15 A.M., the defendant Lucas was observed by a police officer walking on South Warren Street, near Front Street in Trenton. His demeanor aroused the suspicion of the officer, who stopped Lucas and had him empty the contents of his pockets. The search revealed that Lucas was carrying seven packs of matches, numerous religious pamphlets and a newspaper clipping of a picture of the late Monsignor Crean. Upon the failure of the defendant to satisfactorily explain why he was carrying these articles, he was taken to the Detective Bureau.

Commencing at 10:30 A.M. on the morning of December 17, Lucas was questioned by the police for approximately an hour and 15 minutes, during which time he admitted setting fire to another church, not here in question. After

an interruption of an hour for lunch, he was again questioned for an hour and a half. During this interrogation Lucas admitted setting fire to three other churches in the Trenton area, but again not the Cathedral. The interrogation on December 17 terminated at about 4:00 P.M.

On the morning of the following day Lucas agreed to visit certain of the churches he had admitted burning. Shortly after 11:40 A.M. Lucas, accompanied by police officers, proceeded to several churches in Trenton where Lucas re-enacted the manner in which he set the fires. The group then had lunch and returned to the Detective Bureau shortly before 2:00 P.M. Lucas then stated he would like to rest and after he rested he might talk about the Cathedral fire. He rested for about an hour. Detective Sergeant Bradley of the Trenton Police Department testified for the State that at approximately 3:00 P.M. Lucas was again interrogated and at that time admitted that he set the fire, adding, "I am sorry, I didn't know anyone lived there." Lucas admitted that he started the fire in a room which he referred to as a library; that he removed some books from a shelf in the room located to the right of the door as he entered, placed them on the floor and, after saturating them with gasoline, he set fire to them. When shown the fragments of glass found at the scene he stated that they looked like fragments from the glass container in which he had transported the gasoline and which he left at the scene, although he was not certain.

Lucas admitted starting the fire at 4 A.M. in the room next to Murphy's Funeral Home which he had described as a library because of the presence of books on the shelf. He entered the room by the door next to the funeral home which he said was not locked. Lucas described the contents of the room. In addition to the shelf with the books on it to the right of the door, he said it had a desk, a table, a chair and that there were some chairs piled up against the wall that separates the funeral home from the rectory building.

Lucas stated that he had purchased the gasoline at a gasoline station on North Warren Street immediately before the fire. (The station was open 24 hours a day.) He further testified that it was raining on the night of the fire.

Lieutenant Bloking, in an effort to test the veracity of Lucas' admissions, gave him false information concerning the fire:

He told him the police had information that the fire started "around midnight, between 12 and 1 a.m.," but Lucas said, "No," "that was wrong; that he had started it between 4 a.m. and 4:30." Lieutenant Bloking then told him that there was a snowstorm that night; but Lucas insisted that it had been raining and nasty. He was informed that the police believed that the fire started in the area of the altar of the Cathedral itself; Lucas said "No," that it had started in the library next to the funeral home. Bloking told him that the police had evidence that an explosive had been part of the igniting force used to set the fire; but again Lucas adhered to his original story, saying he had poured gasoline over some of the books and papers in the library and then set fire to them.

The interrogation terminated at 3:45 P.M., at which time Lucas was taken to the office of the Chief of Police James DiLouie. Chief DiLouie explained the extreme gravity of his admissions to Lucas and inquired if he understood the import of what he admitted. When Lucas replied affirmatively he was then asked to repeat his version of the crime for Chief DiLouie. The interrogations for the day terminated at 4:30 P.M.

On the ensuing day, December 19, 1956, Lucas was again questioned, this time by Prosecutor Mario Volpe, from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M., with a respite for luncheon. The questions and answers were transcribed stenographically by a certified shorthand reporter. During the period of questioning two separate statements were taken. The one relating to the Cathedral fire was taken in the afternoon and was admitted in evidence at the trial. Present at the time the

statements were taken, in addition to the prosecutor and police officers, was Dr. Spradley, the State's psychiatrist. In it Lucas reiterated at length his oral admissions of the previous day. On the night in question, which Lucas described as "rainy, nasty," he stayed at the Hotel Penn in Trenton. He left the hotel at about 4 A.M. to go to a gasoline station on Warren Street above (north of) the church. He purchased the gasoline in a bottle which he had wrapped in a paper bag. (He had picked up the bottle on the street along the way.) Upon being shown the fragments of glass, Lucas stated that the bottle he had used was "something like that." After purchasing the gasoline he proceeded south on Warren Street toward the church. He entered the southerly door of the rectory building, next to Murphy's Funeral Home which was unlocked, and entered the "library" (the rectory office). He had never been in the rectory building of the church before, although he had attended services in the Cathedral. As he walked in "there was a bunch of books on the righthand side * * * paper books, [he] poured gasoline over them and set fire to them with matches." Lucas described the contents of the room, including the chairs located on the southernmost wall.

After the fire started flaming, he walked out and went toward Perry Street where he stopped at the bus station, got a drink of water, and then proceeded toward Clinton Street where he was to meet his employer at the intersection of Clinton and Perry Streets (Lucas was employed as a helper by a pie truck driver and generally commenced work at 5 A.M.) At a later point in the statement Lucas said that he remained in the room "a couple of minutes, about five minutes" after he lit the fire and saw a "lot of flames."

During the questioning, when asked whether he attended Monsignor Crean's funeral (he had known the Monsignor a short time and occasionally talked with him about baseball), he broke down and cried.

Lucas had attempted to be converted to Catholicism. He said that he attended catechism classes at St. Mary's

Cathedral on one occasion, and prior to that had received instructions in Florence, New Jersey. He stated that he had an argument with one of the priests, whose name he did not know, at the Cathedral concerning communion and catechism. The priest had told Lucas that he had learned the catechism incorrectly; that "most of it was all wrong. He said we got it all wrong. I studied, I started an argument with him, said I was right." Asked, "But was that the reason why you set fire to the church?" he responded, "Yes." At a later point in the confession he contradicted himself by stating that he had no reason for burning the church. Lucas was then interviewed by Dr. Spradley for approximately an hour. The doctor found him to be sane at that time. At his own request he received a visitor at 6:05 P.M., Dr. Hugh Gard, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Trenton, with which Lucas had become associated in March of 1956 after the burning of St. Mary's Cathedral. Later in the evening, about 9:30 P.M., Lucas read aloud the statement which had since been typed by the stenographer. He made some corrections thereon.

On the morning of the following day, December 20, 1956, Lucas accompanied by police officers re-enacted the manner in which he started the fire. The re-enactment coincided with his confession and previous admissions to the police. Lucas proceeded down Warren Street to the southernmost rectory door, walked in and immediately turned to his left. He entered the rectory office where it was believed the fire had started and said, "this is the room where I set the fire." He then proceeded to demonstrate how he set the fire.

Lucas was arraigned on December 20, 1956 and incarcerated in the Mercer County Jail. On January 2, 1957 he was again examined by Dr. Spradley. Dr. Spradley at that time felt that if he remained in prison he would develop an acute psychosis, and therefore recommended he be committed to the State Hospital for observation and possible treatment. The next day, January 3, 1957, Lucas was transferred to the Trenton State Hospital where he remained

until March 3, 1958. On that date he was released free of any overt signs of psychosis.

On November 26, 1957 he was indicted for felony murder (arson) under N.J.S. 2 A:113-1. He pleaded not guilty. At the trial the defenses were denial of the commission of the crime and alleged insanity at the time of its commission. The defendant did not take the stand.

Defense motions for a directed verdict of acquittal at the conclusion of the State's case and at the close of the entire case, and a motion for a new trial, were denied.

I.

CORROBORATION OF THE CONFESSION.

The defendant contends that the trial court committed error in the refusal to direct a verdict of acquittal at the conclusion of the State's case and the entire case because of insufficient corroboration of the confession.

It is a widely accepted doctrine reflected in either American decisional or statutory law that an uncorroborated extra-judicial confession cannot provide the evidential basis to sustain a conviction for crime. Annotation, 45 A.L.R. 2 d 1316 (1956); 7 Wigmore, Evidence (3 d ed. 1940), § 2070, p. 393; Note, "Proof of the Corpus Delicti Aliunde the Defendant's Confession," 103 U. of Pa. L. Rev. 638 (1955).

The rule in New Jersey that a confession without more cannot sustain a conviction can be traced back through the decisional law to as early as 1818. State v. Aaron, 4 N.J.L. 231 [ Reprint pages 269, 279, 282] (Sup. Ct. 1818). The doctrine, despite its widespread and apparently firmly rooted acceptance in American Jurisprudence, is not without its substantial critics. Judge Learned Hand in Daeche v. United States, 250 F. 566, 571 (2 Cir. 1918), remarked: "that the rule [requiring corroboration of confessions] has in fact any substantial necessity in justice, we are much disposed to doubt. * * * it seems to us that such evils as it

corrects could be much more flexibly treated by the judge at trial. * * *" Professor McCormick has recently observed:

"It is submitted that hard-and-fast rules requiring corroboration are as likely to obstruct the punishment of the guilty as they are to safeguard the innocent." McCormick on Evidence, p. 230, at n. 5 (1954).

Commenting upon the rule requiring corroboration of a confession, Massachusetts has alluded to it as "an artificial quantitative rule," and does not adhere to it. Commonwealth v. Kimball, 321 Mass. 290, 73 N.E. 2 d 468, 470 (Sup. Jud. Ct. 1947). In Wisconsin, also, an uncorroborated confession may sustain a conviction for crime. Potman v. State, 259 Wis. 234, 47 N.W. 2 d 884, 885 (Sup. Ct. 1951).

While the rule requiring corroboration is firmly entrenched, there is a conflict among the authorities concerning the quantum of proof independent of the confession which the State must introduce before the confession may be considered as evidential. One view is that the State must proffer independent proof of the corpus delicti. Annotation, supra, 45 A.L.R. 2 d 1316, 1327. Note, supra, 103 U. of Pa. L. Rev., at note 63, p. 647.

The other view is that the extrinsic corroborative proofs need not touch upon the corpus delicti but must be of such a nature as to give the confession an aura of authenticity. Annotation, 45 A.L.R. 2 d., at p. 1329; Note, supra, 103 U. of Pa. L. Rev., at p. 665.

Under the latter view it is sufficient corroboration if the State introduces independent proof of such facts and circumstances as would tend to generate a belief that the confession is true; the evidence need not establish the corpus delicti independent of the confession. See Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 75 S. Ct. 158, 99 L. Ed. 101 (1954); Anderson v. United States, 124 F.2d 58 (6 Cir. 1941), reversed on other grounds, 318 U.S. 350, 63 S. Ct. 599, 87 L. Ed. 829 (1943); Martinez v. People, 129 Colo. 94,

257 P. 2 d 654 (Colo. Sup. Ct. 1954); State v. Cardwell, 90 Kan. 606, 135 P. 597, L.R.A. 1916 B, 745 (Sup. Ct. 1913).

Before resolving the question of what the New Jersey corroboration rule requires it will be helpful to define the term corpus delicti. There are three basic elements in the proof of any crime.

First, the occurrence of loss or injury (a death in murder, a burnt dwelling house in common law arson, etc.); secondly, criminal causation of the loss or injury as opposed to accident (i.e., some one committed a crime), and lastly, the defendant's identity or connection with the crime (i.e., that the defendant in fact was the perpetrator of the crime). 7 Wigmore, Evidence (3 d ed. 1940), § 2072; 2 Wharton, Criminal Evidence (12 th ed. 1955), pp. 130-131.

Dean Wigmore has suggested that in its correct meaning the term corpus delicti has reference only to the first of these elements, namely, the fact of the specific loss or injury sustained. 7 Wigmore, supra, p. 401. (Under this view the State in the instant case need only prove that the rectory was burned and that the death of someone ensued as the result thereof.) He goes on to state:

"This, too, is ' a priori ' the more natural meaning; for the contrast between the first and the other elements is what is emphasized by the rule; i.e. it warns us to be cautious in convicting, since it may subsequently appear that no one has sustained any loss at all; for example, a man has disappeared, but perhaps he may later reappear alive. To find that he is in truth dead, yet not by criminal violence -- i.e. to find the second element lacking, is not the discovery against which the rule is designed to warn and protect us." (7 Wigmore, p. 401)

Nonetheless, Wigmore admits that the prevailing view is that the term corpus delicti also comprehends "the second element, i.e., somebody's criminality." Ibid, at p. 502.

The decisions in New Jersey are somewhat ambiguous in their treatment of the immediate problem. Although the term corpus delicti has been defined to include both the specific loss or injury and a criminal agency causing the

loss or injury, State v. Morris, 98 N.J.L. 621 (Sup. Ct. 1923), affirmed on opinion below, 99 N.J.L. 526 (E. & A. 1923); State v. Greely, 11 N.J. 485, 488 (1953), yet the cases are not uniform with respect to whether both of these elements must be proved by evidence independent of the confession.

A reading of the New Jersey cases on the subject of independent corroborative proof aliunde the confession discloses that while it has been held that a confession, corroborated by independent proof of the corpus delicti will support a conviction for crime, yet, if such proof be lacking, it will suffice if the confession be corroborated by other evidence tending to strengthen it, so that the criminal agency (as well as defendant's connection with the crime) may be proven by the confession itself. State v. Guild, 10 N.J.L. 163 (Sup. Ct. 1828); State v. Banusik, 84 N.J.L. 640 (E. & A. 1906); State v. Kwiatkowski, 83 N.J.L. 650 (E. & A. 1912); State v. James, 96 N.J.L. 132 (E. & A. 1921); State v. Geltzeiler, 101 N.J.L. 415 (E. & A. 1925); State v. Cole, 136 N.J.L. 606 (E. & A. 1948); State v. Klausner, 4 N.J. Super. 427 (App. Div. 1949); State v. Cooper, 10 N.J. 532 (1952); State v. Campisi, 42 N.J. Super. 138 (App. Div. 1956), appeal dismissed in part and reversed in part, 23 N.J. 513 (1957). In one of the earliest cases on the subject, State v. Guild, supra, Chief Justice Ewing obviously followed what Wigmore contended was the correct view of corpus delicti in discussing the rule that the confession must be corroborated by independent proof. The Chief Justice then set forth a number of authorities holding that a totally uncorroborated confession, if it be free and voluntary, was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction, but found it unnecessary to decide the question of whether or not proof of corroborating circumstances was required, since he found such proof to exist in that case. He declared for the court:

"In the first place, however, it becomes material to a correct understanding of the subject, to settle what is meant by the qualification,

'corroborating,' annexed to the term 'circumstances.' The phrase clearly does not mean facts which, independent of the confession, will warrant a conviction, for then the verdict would stand not on the confession, but upon those independent circumstances. To corroborate is to strengthen, to confirm by additional security, to add strength. The testimony of a witness, is said to be corroborated, when it is shown to correspond with the representation of some other witness, or to comport with some facts otherwise known or established. Corroborating circumstances then, used in reference to a confession, are such as serve to strengthen it, to render it more probable, such in short as may serve to impress a jury with a belief of its truth." (10 N.J.L., at page 187).

In 1906 in State v. Banusik, supra, Chief Justice Gummere, in addressing an argument that the law will not permit a conviction to stand absent proof of criminal agency causing death, declared:

"But this, in our opinion, is not an accurate statement, either of the rule of law as to the proof required with relation to the corpus delicti, or the condition of the evidence upon the question whether a murder was committed. Full proof of the body of the crime, the corpus delicti, independently of the confession, is not required. It may be proved by the confession itself, corroborated by other evidence." (84 N.J.L., at pages 646-647.)

But in State v. Kwiatkowski, supra, Chancellor Walker, speaking for the Court of Errors and Appeals, in a case where there was ample evidence of death through criminal agency, declared:

"The only limitation upon the use as evidence against him of a prisoner's confession of murder, voluntarily made, is the want of proof of the corpus delicti. If death, through criminal agency, be proved, and a man confesses to having caused that death, he may be convicted of murder on his confession." (83 N.J.L., at page 660.)

In State v. James, supra, the Court of Errors and Appeals recognized that either rule would suffice in holding:

"* * * in this situation, namely, proof of the death of a person by foul means and the confession of a party that he murdered the man whose death is so proved, the law of this state is entirely

settled; for in State v. Kwiatkowski, 83 N.J.L. 650, this court held that the only limitation upon the use as evidence against him of a prisoner's confession of murder, voluntarily made, is the want of proof of corpus delicti. If death through criminal agency, be proved, and a man confesses to having caused that death, he may be convicted of murder on his confession. Furthermore, in State v. Banusik, 84 N.J.L. 640, this court held that in a prosecution for murder the corpus delicti may be proved by the confession made by the defendant which is corroborated by other evidence. The law does not require full proof of the body of the crime independent of such confession. * * *

As seen above, the corpus delicti was proved independently of the confession, but, if it were not, as contended for by the prisoner, still the confession was so thoroughly corroborated by other evidence that both together afforded full proof of the body of the crime." (96 N.J.L., at pages 147, 148.)

In State v. Geltzeiler, supra, the court declared:

"In the history of the law so many persons are known to have confessed the commission of crimes they never committed, even including murder, that the rule requiring proof of the corpus delicti has been evolved. However, when there is a voluntary confession of the offense by the defendant in a criminal case, full proof of the body of the crime is not required in addition to the confession, but sufficient proof thereof may arise out of evidence corroborating some fact or facts in the confession itself." (101 N.J.L., at page 416.)

See also State v. Cooper, supra, 10 N.J. at page 545, and State v. Campisi, supra, 42 N.J. Super. at page 145.

In our view, the test first enunciated in the Guild case, i.e., that the State must introduce independent proof of facts and circumstances which strengthen or bolster the confession and tend to generate a belief in its trustworthiness, plus independent proof of loss or injury, affords ample protection for the accused and is the rule best designed to serve the ends of justice in the administration of the criminal law.

Historically the doctrine of corroboration evolved from notorious instances both in England and the United States where individuals confessed to the murder of missing persons were convicted and hung on the sole strength of their confessions, and afterwards the alleged decedent returned

very much alive. See Note, supra, 103 U. of Pa. L. Rev., at pages 638, 639, 646, and authorities therein cited.

The evil at which the corroboration rule was aimed was not that the death which was confessed to was in fact accidental rather than felonious, but rather that there was, in fact, no death at all. This objection is, as Dean Wigmore noted, overcome by the requirement that the State prove independently of the confession only the fact of loss or injury.

It might be argued that the State ought also to prove criminal agency before a confession be considered as evidential, in order to assure that confession was not the imaginary product of a mentally diseased or deficient mind. But if criminal agency must be proven aliunde the confession, why not the defendant's connection with the crime? There seems to be little difference in kind between convicting the innocent where no crime has been committed and convicting the innocent where a crime has been committed, but not by the accused. Yet, no jurisdiction imposes such a requirement, for that would in effect inverse the rule and render the confession merely corroborative of a crime independently proven. Indeed, it is ofttimes more likely that persons giving false confessions because of mental disease or defect will confess to crimes where there is abundant proof of the two elements of the corpus delicti but where there is no proof as to the perpetrator. The danger is not so much that such persons will confess to non-criminal occurrences but rather to crimes committed by some one other than themselves. Under such circumstances the confessor is probably afforded greater protection by the requirement that the State must introduce such independent corroborative proof of facts and circumstances tending to generate a belief in the trustworthiness of the confession than he is by the rule requiring independent proof of the corpus delicti.

Confessions, like other admissions against interest, stand high in the probative hierarchy of proof. It is for

this reason that the law imposes various safeguards designed to assure that the confession is true. But safeguards for the accused should not be turned into obstacles whereby the guilty can escape just punishment. No greater burden should be required of the State than independent corroborative proof tending to establish that when the defendant confessed he was telling the truth, plus independent proof of the loss or injury.

In our view, the State's corroborating proofs aliunde the confession presented a question for the jury as to the trustworthiness of the confession.

Lucas stated that he set the fire at approximately 4:00 A.M. That the fire started about that time is beyond cavil from the proofs in the record. Lucas described the night as "rainy, nasty" -- it had in fact rained all night on March 14. His description of having set the fire in the "library," i.e., the rectory office, was corroborated by the evidence relating to the point of origin of the fire previously detailed. Lucas accurately described the layout and contents of the office, including the "paper books" on the mantel which caused him to think the room was a library, although by his own admission he had never been there before. Edith Egan, who occupied the room during the day, confirmed this by testifying that although she believed that she had seen Lucas in the Cathedral, he had never been in the office. The chairs lined up against one of the walls, which Lucas described, had only been in the office for several months prior to the fire.

Under a concentrated mass of rubble located at the point in the office where the fire was believed to have started, at the floor level, were the eight fragments of glass. While the State's proof would have been stronger had it been successful in attempts to identify the fragments, nonetheless these otherwise unaccounted for fragments of glass could have formed the basis for an inference by the trier of fact that they were the remains of the bottle in which Lucas claimed to have carried the gasoline and which he threw into the fire. The State further proved that charred telephone

books were found on the office floor, again mute confirmation of Lucas' story that he poured gasoline over some paper books which were on the mantel in the office. Also the spontaneity of Lucas' ...


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