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State v. Sikora

Decided: May 17, 1965.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Francis, Hall and Haneman. For reversal -- Justices Jacobs, Proctor and Schettino. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J. Weintraub, C.J. (concurring).


Defendant Walter J. Sikora shot and killed Douglas Hooey in the early morning of January 15, 1962. Thereafter, on May 15, 1962, a jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree for the killing, and recommended life imprisonment. Following imposition of that sentence, he appealed directly to this Court. R.R. 1:2-1(c).

On this appeal defendant contends the trial court committed reversible error in denying two motions for mistrial, and in refusing to admit certain psychiatric testimony relative to defendant's capacity to premeditate the killing he committed. There is no substance to the charge of error with respect to the motions for mistrial. The grant or denial

thereof was a matter for the trial court's discretion. The record presents no sound reason for appellate conclusion that the action it took was arbitrary. The attack on the refusal to permit introduction of the psychiatric evidence, however, requires detailed consideration.

At the time of trial Sikora was 36 years of age, five feet, six inches tall and weighed 116 pounds. He had had an unfortunate childhood. His earliest recollection was of living in a Catholic Home in Bergen County when about five or six years old. He never had any visitors there, as the other children did, and he was lonesome and unhappy. At age seven the Child Welfare Board placed him in a foster home in Northvale, New Jersey. There he claims he was beaten and ran away. On being brought back he refused to stay and was transferred to an orphanage. After a few months there he was sent to the Hackensack Children's Home where he remained for about a year. Over the next few years he was in three foster homes. He was unhappy and received beatings for bedwetting. In the third home he was locked in his room for two weeks after which he ran away again. When picked up by the police he was sent to the Hackensack Child Welfare Home. He was then 15 years old. While there he said he was confined to an isolation room for a week at a time. At 16 years he was transferred and allowed to work in a bakery, but was made to work so hard he ran away again. Then he was committed to Jamesburg Boys Home where he got along fairly well and remained for about a year. Thereafter the authorities put him to work on a dairy farm in the area. He claimed the hours of work were from 4:00 A.M. to 7:00 or 7:30 P.M., for which he was paid $1 per week and room and board. Later he received $2 weekly. Permission was given to leave the farm and join the Merchant Marine when he was about 19 years old.

After three and one-half years he left the Merchant Marine and came to live in Paterson, New Jersey where he remained, except for Army service, until this crime was committed. The Army drafted him in 1955 and he was in service until February

1957. He was discharged at his own request "under honorable conditions." He told some of the psychiatrists who testified at this trial that intoxication and overstaying of leave played a part in his discharge. He was unhappy in the Army because he was 30 years of age when drafted and had to serve and work with 18- and 19-year-old boys.

Sikora returned to Paterson in February 1957. While there he worked as a general laborer, doing carpentry and painting until 1959 when he became employed in refrigeration and air conditioning installation. While engaged in the latter work, he had living quarters over his employer's shop. This remained his official residence until the shooting.

Sikora has never married and the companionship of women was infrequent. Most of his free time was spent alone and in nearby taverns where, apparently, he consumed large quantities of beer. In May 1959 while in a tavern he met a woman who was about 15 years older than he. About three months later, he moved into her apartment and lived with her as man and wife until December 29, 1961. They got along very well and after a time agreed to marry when they had saved a fixed amount of money. Subsequently while intoxicated, he was "rolled" and his savings stolen. This caused friction between them and both began to drink heavily. On December 28, 1961 they had an argument in the course of which Sikora literally turned her apartment "upside down." She had him arrested the next day and he was fined and ordered to leave her home. He did so, returning his belongings to the quarters over his employer's shop. (He was receiving unemployment compensation at the time, having been laid off during December.)

After the separation he telephoned her daily but she refused to speak to him. This upset him greatly. According to the defense psychiatric testimony at the trial, his relationship with her was a markedly dependent one, she being the dominant and aggressive party. He continued to frequent the D & D Tavern, a neighborhood establishment where he had first met her. On Friday, January 12, 1962, according to his

testimony, he attempted suicide at home by taking a large quantity of pills. The attempt was unsuccessful and he awoke about Sunday noon, January 14, sick but not seriously affected by the experience.

In the early afternoon of that day he wrote his erstwhile girl friend a letter and placed it in her mailbox. He made no effort to go into her apartment. Shortly thereafter he made a telephone call to her which was answered by a male voice, and he then went to the D & D Tavern. This was about 4:30 P.M. While drinking beer he noticed Douglas Hooey there. He had known Hooey casually as a frequenter of the tavern for about two years. Apparently he had had a flare-up with his female friend a short time previous over Hooey.

Sikora visited with a male friend in the tavern until about 9:30 P.M. when the friend left. Thereafter Sikora sat alone at the bar, and on several occasions Hooey would brush by him poking an elbow into his back. Then Hooey would stand nearby and grin, but Sikora had no words with him. On one occasion he overheard Hooey make a disparaging remark about the availability of Sikora's girl friend now that they had broken up. Between 11:00 and 12:00 P.M., after he had consumed 25 to 30 glasses of beer, he testified he was suddenly attacked by Hooey and two or three of his friends, badly beaten and kicked, and then thrown out of the tavern onto the sidewalk. When he arose he was cut and bleeding about the face, head and hands. (The State contended his hands were cut when he broke the glass panel of the door in attempting to re-enter the tavern.)

He walked home, entered his employer's shop, called the police and reported the incident. In a few minutes the police car appeared and he described what had occurred, asking that they accompany him back to the tavern. They declined unless he would ride to police headquarters and sign a complaint. On his refusal and declination of their offer to take him to the hospital, the officers departed.

Sikora went upstairs to his apartment and lay on the bed thinking of what had happened to him and his difficulty with

his female friend. While there (according to his testimony) he conceived the idea of killing himself. He said he was crying, and mixed up, and he took from its hiding place an automatic pistol which he had bought during his Merchant Marine service. The gun was fully loaded with eight shells in the clip and one in the chamber. He took the safety off and sat on the bed, but on second thought changed his mind about suicide, and decided to return to the tavern first to talk to Hooey about the fight. The gun had never been fired in the years he owned it. He left his building and went across the street to a shed and test-fired it until it was empty. Then he went back to his apartment, walked part way up the stairs, stopped and reloaded the gun with nine bullets. He took the bullets from a box containing over 50 of them which he had put in his pocket at the time he picked up the gun in his bedroom. According to his testimony, while reloading the gun he thought of the men who had assaulted him in the tavern. Then he "just lost his head" and started for the tavern to talk to Hooey and find out the reason for the attack. In this connection it may be noted that after the homicide and Sikora's arrest, police officers found in his apartment a bloodstained piece of paper on which he had written, "The first bullet is for Doug and the second is for Stella Miller." Although there was some equivocation in his confession, which admittedly was voluntarily given, and in his testimony as to when the note was written, the evidence suggests very strongly that it was written before he armed himself and left his apartment to return to the tavern in search of Hooey.

On leaving the apartment, he put the gun in his waist belt and zippered up his jacket far enough to hide it. Thinking there would be a number of persons in the tavern, he decided to use the alleyway entrance, and endeavor to get Hooey out that door so as to talk to him about the assault. As he neared the tavern he saw the lights go out, and he decided not to go in. It was about 3:00 A.M. which, apparently, is closing time. But as he passed the door he heard a woman remark in profane language that he was the one who had been beaten up

earlier. Looking back he saw Hooey coming out the tavern door. Hooey asked, "What the hell are you doing here?" Sikora testified he replied he wanted to find out why he had been beaten up. Both Hooey and the woman started to walk toward him, whereupon he drew the gun and told Hooey not to come closer. Hooey kept coming and Sikora began to back up, repeating his warning. Sikora said Hooey was grinning, and asked if Sikora thought "the thing will shoot." Sikora replied Hooey was "liable to find out" if he did not stop coming forward. Sikora knew the safety catch on the gun was off. There is an intersecting street a short distance from the tavern and Sikora was backing toward it. He stepped off the curb into the street with Hooey approaching him. At this time he fired and four shots entered Hooey's head and body killing him. Then he ran across the street, looked back and fired the gun in the air, shouting as he did, "All you bastards stay back."

From the scene of the killing he went to his girlfriend's house and rang the bell. There was no answer, so he kicked in the door. Not finding her at home he left and returned to his own apartment. Before departing, however, he attempted to retrieve from her mailbox the letter he had deposited there the previous afternoon. After getting it part way out of the box, he decided against taking it and pushed it back. Later the police found bloody finger marks on it. At his apartment he lay on the bed expecting the police to arrive in a short time. He reloaded the gun (he said) with the intention of shooting himself. About ten minutes later when the police appeared, the intention had not been executed.

The above factual outline represents the substance of Sikora's testimony and his voluntary confession. The confession, which fills 51 pages of the trial transcript, was signed in the early afternoon of the day of the shooting. It reveals a comprehensive recollection of the circumstances before and at the time of the fatal event. The psychiatrists who testified for the State and defense received very much the same history from Sikora at the time of their examinations. The State

contended that the facts in their totality demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had committed a premeditated, deliberate and willful killing and was therefore guilty of murder in the first degree.

No defense of insanity was interposed. All the psychiatrists agreed Sikora was legally sane before and at the time of the shooting. Thus it was conceded that he knew the difference between right and wrong; he knew the nature and quality of his act, and he knew that it was wrong to kill.

The error asserted in this Court as requiring reversal of the conviction had its origin in one hypothetical question put by defense counsel to Dr. Noel C. Galen, a psychiatrist produced on behalf of the defendant.

Dr. Galen specializes in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He received his M.D. degree in 1949. In addition to postgraduate work in neurology and psychiatry, he had three years of training as a psychoanalyst. This last training, he said, dealt with psychodynamics on a very detailed and sophisticated level. It taught him that people are a product of their own life history, their own genetic patterns, and that they all react differently under the stresses of their daily lives. As a result of his study and experience, he believes that mental disturbance and disorder, as distinguished from objective disease, are merely gradients, that people range from being essentially normal, perceiving the world substantially in its normal appearance, all the way to marked distortion of the thinking mechanism, and between the two extremes is a rather jagged line which is prone to and open to many variations. In short, all human behavior is distributed upon an infinite spectrum of fine gradations, there being no all or none in human dynamics. It is his view that mental disorder is one degree of an indeterminate line between gross disorganization and normal functioning, and it is often impossible to say at what point on the line a particular person is functioning at a given time. Mental illness or disorder in this context is a relative term as he sees it; it is a disorganization of the personality which causes a person to react in

a specific way to a specific kind of stress in a way characteristic for him.

Psychodynamics is the study of what makes a man "tick." In effect the doctor said its purpose is to seek an explanation of an individual's mental condition at a given time in terms of his lifelong emotional development; to relate his questioned conduct and its accompanying emotional symptoms to their long antecedent, predetermining factors. In appearing as a witness, Dr. Galen indicated his function was to help the court understand "the dynamics of what happened to this man with this particular history at this particular time in his life." It was not his place as a psychiatrist to consider the premeditation aspect of murder in terms of right or wrong or good or evil. Evil is a philosophical concept. In his view the psychodynamic psychiatrist cannot consider the aspect of first degree murder which in law requires the conceiving of a design to kill in terms of evil, or evil intent. These moral judgments are best left to the courts to decide. Such a physician deals with the problem in a scientific way by applying his knowledge of the "way people operate," his knowledge of stress and "the way people react to particular kinds of stress, based on their personality disorganization." He feels "somewhat medieval in talking about evil." Basically Dr. Galen's thesis is that man is a helpless victim of his genes and his lifelong environment; that unconscious forces from within dictate the individual's behavior without his being able to alter it.

By way of illustrating the area of psychodynamics under discussion, Dr. Galen referred to a physician friend who, while driving on a public ...

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