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State v. Ravenell

Decided: July 31, 1964.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.


The defendant Alfred Ravenell was found guilty of murder in the first degree with recommendation of life imprisonment on both counts of the indictment against him. He was sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment and he appealed to this Court as of right. R.R. 1:2-1(c).

On April 18, 1962 Bernard Warset, the proprietor of Lee's Liquor Store on Jefferson Avenue in Elizabeth, and John E. Polansky, a customer in the store, were murdered. Thereafter the Union County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendants Alfred Ravenell and Wallace Solomon Odom with having committed the murders in violation of N.J.S. 2A:113-1. In due course the defendants were brought to trial and the State produced proof in support of its assertion that the defendants had murdered Warset and Polansky in the course of a robbery at the liquor store. At the outset of the trial, counsel for both defendants stipulated that "Bernard

Warset and John E. Polansky died on April 18, 1962, between 7:30 P.M. and 8:10 P.M. at Lee's Liquor Store at Jefferson Avenue in Elizabeth, New Jersey as the result of bullet wounds unlawfully and not self-inflicted upon them."

The State's first witness was Barbara Jean Jeter who testified that she knew both Ravenell and Odom and that she was with them and M. C. Jackson on June 20, 1962 at the Arthur Kill (Elizabeth River) when the following conversation took place: "Al Ravenell said that they killed a man, the liquor store on Jefferson Avenue. I asked him when did that happen. He said a little bit before Easter, just before Easter. I asked him why. He said they needed money very badly. And Sol said while they was there that a customer came in and he begged them don't take his life, he wouldn't recognize them, but they killed him anyway." Easter Sunday in 1962 fell on April 22, just four days after the murder.

Mrs. Sylvia Warset, the widow of Bernard Warset, testified that at or about 8:00 P.M. on April 18 she entered the store and found her husband lying face down on the floor. The cash register was wide open and there were "no bills in the register at all, just some change." Earlier in the day she had observed that there was a little over a hundred dollars in the register and its tape indicated that the receipts for the entire day amounted to one hundred and fifty-three dollars and change. Officer Hennings of the Elizabeth police department testified that he entered the store about 8:12 P.M.; he saw Mr. Warset's body behind the counter and later saw the second body in the rear of the store; and he found the cash register empty except for some nickels and pennies.

King Junious testified that he knew Odom and also knew where Lee's Liquor Store was located; on April 18 he met Odom at about 7:30 P.M. at a tavern known as the Cotton Top; Odom asked him for a ride and he then drove Odom and a man he could not identify to a point about a half block from the liquor store. Jose Panarra testified that on April 18 at about 8:00 P.M. he and his wife Maria went to the liquor store. They made their purchase and as they were leaving

they saw Odom enter. Maria corroborated her husband and testified that Odom later identified them as the teenagers who were leaving the store as he entered.

Stephen Alusik testified that at about 8:00 P.M. on April 18 he had his son in a stroller and was traveling towards the liquor store. When he was about 20 or 30 feet from the entrance, he saw a man heading from the liquor store towards Magnolia Avenue. Odom later identified himself as that man. Alusik continued towards the store and saw a man inside with a gun in his right hand. He heard two shots and saw a man fall to the floor at the rear. The gunman, wearing a black jacket, left the store and Alusik saw him put his gun in his pocket and head away from Magnolia Avenue.

On July 22, 1962 Odom gave a statement to the police and, after hearing testimony from Detective Martel and Lieutenant McGlynn of the Union County Prosecutor's Office and from Detectives Schlauch and Lynes of the Elizabeth police department, the trial court found it to have been made voluntarily. The court expunged references in the statement to Ravenell and admitted it with appropriate limiting instructions. See State v. Rios, 17 N.J. 572, 585 (1955); State v. Tassiello, 39 N.J. 282, 296-297 (1963); State v. Hall, 55 N.J. Super. 441, 451 (App. Div. 1959). Odom's statement in its expunged form gave substantially the following story: He and another man were driven by King to the corner at Magnolia and Jefferson Avenues early in the evening of the 18th. After King drove off, they stood at the corner for about ten minutes and then walked across the street to Lee's Liquor Store to get some wine. While in the store Odom heard the other man say "give me your money" and then saw a gun in his hand. At that point a customer came into the store, Odom went out and, as he was leaving, he heard two reports which sounded like shots and then heard two more such reports. Odom acknowledged that when they originally arrived at Magnolia and Jefferson Avenues, the man with him had shown him his gun and had said he needed some money and at that point Odom said "I did too." After they had left the liquor store, Odom met the

other man and was handed $15 with the comment "Here is half. That is all there was." Toward the latter part of the statement Odom was asked whether he had not really seen the shooting. He then changed his earlier version and said that while he was in the store he saw the owner shot though he was on his hands and knees begging not to be shot.

John P. Brady, a chemist and toxicologist, was qualified by the State as an expert witness. He testified from an examination of their clothing as to the distances the victims were from the fatal weapon when shot. Sergeant August O. Hoppe of the New Jersey State Police was qualified as an expert and testified that the four bullets removed from the bodies of the victims came from the same weapon. At the close of his testimony, the State rested and the defendants moved for acquittal. The motions were denied on the ground that, at that stage, the State was entitled to the benefit of all of its testimony and the favorable inferences which a jury might reasonably draw therefrom and that, thus viewed, it was sufficient to withstand the motions. See State v. Fiorello, 36 N.J. 80, 86-91 (1961), cert. denied 368 U.S. 967, 82 S. Ct. 439, 7 L. Ed. 2 d 396 (1962). The trial court also expressed the view that the requirement of corroboration, as broadly formulated in State v. Lucas, 30 N.J. 37 (1959), was adequately met by the State. After the denials of the motions for acquittal, the defendant ...

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