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State v. Seefeldt

Decided: May 6, 1968.


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 Proctor, J.


After a trial in the Ocean County Court, Roberta Seefeldt was convicted of murder in the first degree for the killing of her husband and, pursuant to the jury's recommendation, was sentenced to life imprisonment. She appealed directly to this Court under former R.R. 1:2-1(c) (Amended October 5, 1967).

The victim, Gerald Seefeldt, was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. On November 15, 1966, while stationed in Tennessee, he married the defendant whom he had met in that state. About a week after the marriage, the Sergeant was assigned to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. He and his wife moved to an apartment in Seaside Park, a few miles from the Naval Air Station.

Five weeks after his marriage, early in the morning of December 21, 1966, the body of Sergeant Seefeldt was found on the shoulder of a road near the main gate to the Station. Death was caused by six .22 caliber bullet wounds, five in the chest and one in the top of the skull.

A few hours after the body was found, Sergeant Seefeldt's locked Cougar automobile was seen parked in front of the Seefeldt apartment. Bloodstains in the car indicated that the shooting had taken place in the vehicle. There were only two sets of keys to the automobile; one set was found in Sergeant Seefeldt's pocket, the other set was in the possession of the defendant. At the trial the State put into evidence the defendant's car coat upon which there were bloodstains identified as the same blood type found in the automobile. The bloodstains on the coat and in the automobile matched the blood type of Sergeant Seefeldt. Defendant's presence in the automobile during the early morning hours preceding the discovery of the body was established by two witnesses. An attendant at a gasoline station near the Air Station testified that between 12:30 and 2:00 A.M. on December 21 he sold gasoline to the defendant who was accompanied by a man. The guard at the gate of the Naval Air Station testified that at 1:30 A.M. the defendant, driving

the Cougar, passed the guard post. A friend of the defendant testified that the defendant had told her that she kept a gun "down by the seat of the car." There also was evidence that in Tennessee shortly before her marriage the defendant owned several guns, including a .22 caliber revolver, and that after coming to New Jersey she told another friend that she had a gun and was a "crack shot." The murder weapon was never recovered.

There was evidence that on two occasions -- one in the early part of December and the other on the day before the killing -- the defendant told acquaintances that if her husband ever laid a hand on her she would "shoot him full of holes." A number of witnesses testified that she had complained about her marriage and expressed a strong dislike of her husband. Two men testified that they met the defendant in a tavern near the Air Station and during the month of December had sexual relations with her. One of these men stated that he was intimate with the defendant on the night before her husband's death and that two nights after the killing the defendant called him to her apartment where they again had sexual intercourse. A third man, Harry Jones, testified that in Tennessee during the summer of 1966, while he was in military service, he met the defendant. Their relationship became close and they discussed marriage. Early in November, however, shortly before defendant's marriage to Sergeant Seefeldt, Jones told her that he had decided not to marry her. Thereafter, he did not see the defendant until December 1 when she visited Tennessee and came to see him. At that time she told Jones that she had married "to spite" him. After her return to New Jersey, the defendant wrote to Jones in Tennessee asking to see him when he came to New Jersey on Christmas leave. On Christmas weekend, four days after the death of her husband, the defendant drove the Cougar to the home of Jones's parents in New Jersey. During the weekend visit she and Jones had sexual relations and she gave him several Christmas gifts, including a ring. Prior to this visit to Jones,

the defendant had made arrangements with the authorities at the Naval Air Station to fly to Nebraska where her husband was to be buried, but she did not appear at the funeral. After leaving Jones she went to Tennessee, abandoning the Cougar at the Philadelphia Airport.

Upon learning that the defendant did not attend Sergeant Seefeldt's funeral in Nebraska, the Ocean County Prosecutor's office obtained a warrant for her apprehension as a material witness. (At this time the police had a suspect in custody.) The police located her in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she had been arrested on charges pending against her in Tennessee and unrelated to the present case. On December 31, in the company of two detectives of the Ocean County Prosecutor's office, she returned by plane to New Jersey. That night she was formally charged with the murder of her husband before a judge of the Ocean County Court.

At the trial three tape-recorded statements of the defendant were introduced into evidence over defense objections. The first statement (dated December 21, 1966) was taken by Detective Gallant when he interviewed the defendant at her apartment about six hours after her husband's body had been found. In this statement the defendant said that, at about midnight the night before, her husband had gone out for a drink with a friend. A few hours later the defendant saw him park the Cougar in front of the apartment and enter a white Volkswagen which immediately was driven away. She stated that she had never seen the Volkswagen before and did not recognize its driver. According to the defendant, she then slept until awakened by two officers from the Naval Air Station who told her of her husband's death.

The following day, at the request of Lieutenant McCulloch, the defendant came to the Ocean County Prosecutor's office and the second tape-recorded statement was taken (statement of December 22, 1966). This statement materially departed from the facts related in the December 21

statement. In the new statement she said that her husband told her that he had been in bed with the wife of "Fred Harding" at the Seefeldt apartment several nights before. The defendant identified the white Volkswagen mentioned in her prior statement as belonging to Fred. At about 2:30 A.M. on December 21, her husband telephoned and asked her to pick him up at a telephone booth in Lakehurst. When she arrived there, she said, Sergeant Seefeldt was in the Volkswagen with Fred and his wife. The Sergeant argued with her, and he and Fred got into the Seefeldt automobile. Fred's wife then drove the defendant home in the Volkswagen. About an hour later, Fred telephoned the defendant at her apartment and at about 5:00 A.M. came to the apartment. According to the defendant, he told her that she would never see her husband again and that if she said anything to anyone she "would be just like he [her husband] was." In the December 22 statement the defendant also stated that she had relations with the two men, other than Jones, who testified at the trial concerning their intimacy with her.

After the defendant gave this second statement, two police officers were assigned to protect her and on the following day, December 23, a suspect was taken into custody as the "Fred Harding" referred to in the defendant's statement. On that day the defendant picked the suspect out of a police line-up as the "Fred Harding" who had killed her husband. The suspect was charged with the murder.

The third tape-recorded statement was obtained on December 31, 1966 at the Ocean County Prosecutor's office after the defendant returned from Chattanooga. In this statement the defendant admitted shooting her husband and recanted her accusation of the suspect whom she previously had identified as "Fred Harding." Lieutenant McCulloch testified that during the questioning prior to the taping of the statement, the defendant told him she had falsely identified the suspect because he "was as good as any." In the taped statement, she said that she and her husband were drinking

at their apartment on the night of December 20 and at about midnight went for a drive in their car. With the defendant operating the Cougar, they stopped for gasoline (the record makes it clear that this is the stop to which the gasoline station attendant testified at trial). The defendant said that during the ride she and her husband were arguing over her involvement with other men. She drove down a dirt road and pointed out to her husband a spot where she had engaged in sexual intercourse with one of these men. According to the defendant, when she stopped the car her husband became angry, took a gun out of the glove compartment, removed it from its holster, and threatened to kill her. Her statement continues: "Then I grabbed the gun. He came on me and put his hand around my throat. I pushed Jerry up with my left hand and I got the gun up straight. I put both my hands on the gun. Jerry was trying to choke me, and I shot the gun four times. He slid down. He was still holding me by the neck, and I shot him again and he slid further and I shot him again." The defendant said that she then attempted to take her husband to the hospital at the Naval Air Station but as she was driving he fell against the gear shift lever, stalling the car. While the car was stopped, her husband fell out the door. The defendant said she was frightened by the approach of another vehicle and therefore pushed her husband's foot out of the car and drove away. She stated that on her way home she threw the gun into Barnegat Bay and after arriving at her apartment attempted to remove the bloodstains from the car. She hid the holster in the laundry room of the apartment house where it was later found by the police. In this statement she also said that the ring which she gave to Harry Jones as a Christmas gift had belonged to her husband.

The defendant's testimony at the trial was limited to the issue of the admissibility of the statement of December 31.*fn1

The sole defense witness was a physician who testified that he examined the defendant early in January 1967. He found a lump on the back of her head which he said the defendant told him resulted from being struck with the butt of a pistol on the night of Sergeant Seefeldt's death. Defense counsel contended before the jury that the defendant killed her husband in self-defense.

It was the State's theory that the defendant wished to be rid of her husband and was the aggressor in the shooting. The State contended that her gun was used in the killing, and that she had drawn it from alongside her seat in the car rather than that her husband had taken it from the glove compartment. In summation the prosecutor argued that it was inconceivable that the defendant could have wrested the gun from her husband, a Marine veteran who had seen action in Vietnam. The State emphasized that several witnesses had testified that there were no visible marks or bruises on the defendant on the day after the alleged struggle with her husband.

The defendant urges several grounds for reversal which we will consider in the order set forth in her brief.

Defendant challenges the admissibility of her tape-recorded statements of December 22 and December 31 under the exclusionary rule of Miranda v. State of Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2 d 694 (1966).*fn2 Each of the two tape recordings commences with a proper recital of the warnings required by Miranda and both tapes record the defendant's affirmative responses that she understood the rights described in each warning and that she was willing to waive these rights and answer questions.

The defendant's attack on the statement of December 22 is ill-founded. She contends that the tape-recorded statement is inadmissible, despite the presence on it of the Miranda routine, because the record is silent on the [51 NJ Page 482] question whether the warnings were given prior to the hour of questioning which admittedly preceded the taping of the statement used at the trial. The Miranda warning rules apply only when a suspect "has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Id., at p. 444, 86 S. Ct., at p. 1612, 16 L. Ed. 2 d, at p. 706. Here, because the defendant was not in custody when questioned, the Miranda warnings -- even those given on the tape recording itself -- were not necessary. When she gave the statement of December 22 the defendant was at the prosecutor's office not as a suspect but rather in the role of a grieving widow attempting to aid in the solution of her husband's murder. The interview took place not in an interrogation room at a police station, but in the law library of the prosecutor's office. She was free to leave at any time and, in fact, at the conclusion of her statement returned to her apartment in Seaside Park. Certainly the request by the police that she keep herself available to aid in the investigation was but a routine and reasonable police practice, compliance with which was in no way mandatory. Indeed, on the day after the statement was given, the defendant made arrangements with the Naval authorities to accompany her husband's body to Nebraska for the funeral. Moreover, it is apparent that at the time the statement was given the defendant wished to impress the police with her cooperation in tracking down her husband's killer. To this end she gave the statement falsely accusing "Fred Harding" as the culprit. Later she selected an innocent man from a line-up as the guilty "Fred Harding." This effort ...

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