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State v. Williams

Decided: May 10, 1961.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
v.
BLAND WILLIAMS, DEFENDANT



Giuliano, J.s.c.

Giuliano

This is an application by the defendant, Bland Williams, for a change of venue or, in the alternative, for a foreign jury.

The matter came on for hearing before this court on May 5, 1961. The defendant urges that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in the County of Middlesex because of the widespread newspaper publicity devoted to the proceedings involving the Quackenbush murder. The defendant emphasizes, in particular, that there has been widespread newspaper publicity dealing with the plea of non vult to second degree murder entered by Bland Williams during the second trial and later withdrawn with the permission of the court. The defendant contends that prospective jurors probably are aware of the background of legal proceedings, particularly the prior plea, and because of this awareness an impartial trial cannot be had in Middlesex County.

For the purpose of the motion the State and the defendant entered into a stipulation which discloses the background and status of the indictment against Bland Williams which is presently awaiting trial. On January 2, 1957 William Butler, James Winbush, John Coleman, Eugene Williams and Bland Williams were separately indicted by the Middlesex County grand jury for the murder of James Quackenbush. Defendants William Butler, Eugene Williams and Bland Williams were tried together after their indictments

were consolidated for trial. These defendants were found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. On appeal the judgment of conviction was reversed and the matter was remanded for a new trial. During the second trial defendant Bland Williams and his brother, Eugene Williams, entered pleas of non vult to second degree murder and both were sentenced to the New Jersey State Prison. A mistrial was declared as to defendant William Butler. He was later tried, convicted and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Thereafter, Governor Meyner commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.

On October 31, 1960 Bland Williams applied to the court to vacate and set aside his judgment of conviction and sentence imposed thereon, for permission to withdraw his plea of non vult to second degree murder, and for permission to enter a plea of not guilty to the indictment. After a hearing the court vacated the judgment of conviction and sentence imposed thereon, permitted the plea of non vult to be withdrawn, and a plea of not guilty to be entered on behalf of the defendant.

On April 17, 1961 Bland Williams went on trial for the third time for the murder of James Quackenbush. That trial ended in a mistrial on the following day. The mistrial was declared upon the motion of the defendant after one of the prospective jurors on his voir dire , and in the presence of the entire panel of jurors, referred to the plea of non vult entered at the prior trial on behalf of defendant Bland Williams.

In paragraph 14 of the stipulation the parties agree that Radio Station WCTC, the New Brunswick Daily Home News , the Perth Amboy Evening News , and the Plainfield Courier News have provided "extensive coverage and circulation in Middlesex County." Further, the defendant has adduced in evidence the newspaper files for the Quackenbush murder from the New Brunswick Daily Home News

and the Perth Amboy Evening News. These files have the articles written and published in those newspapers which relate to the "accounts of the murder, testimony of witnesses at the trials and other proceedings hereinbefore referred to, interviews with the Prosecutor and defense counsel, interviews with the defendants, interviews with public officials with particular reference to and emphasis on the cost of the trials and proceedings to the County." (See stipulation, paragraph 14.) The total number of articles published is approximately 400. There has not been any offer of proof on the number of radio broadcasts made on Station WCTC and the number of articles published in the Plainfield Courier News.

It is necessary to stress that the plea of non vult to second degree murder which was entered by defendant Bland Williams during his second trial has been repeatedly reported by the press from the time that plea was entered to the present time. The articles have generally equated a plea of non vult with a plea of guilty, and it would appear to this court that the reports of the plea at the time it was entered and the reports of the sentence imposed thereon, in addition to the reports at the time Bland Williams moved and subsequently succeeded in withdrawing his plea, have caused current county-wide familiarity with the fact that this defendant formerly pleaded non vult. The law is clear that the disclosure during the trial of a plea of guilty or non vult entered before a local magistrate is prejudicial error. State v. Smith , 109 N.J.L. 532 (E. & A. 1932); State v. Leaks , 124 N.J.L. 261 (E. & A. 1939); State v. Goldberg , 124 N.J.L. 272 (Sup. Ct. 1940). Further, the Supreme Court held in Goodlet v. Goodman , 34 N.J. 358 (1961), that such disclosure is prejudicial error even where no objection to it is made.

This court is keenly aware of the probable outcome of another trial in Middlesex County in view of the publicity the prior plea of non vult to second degree murder has received. If ...


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