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State v. McKnight

Decided: June 3, 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 Weintraub, C.J.


Defendant McKnight was convicted of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life imprisonment upon a jury's recommendation. N.J.S.A. 2 A:113-4. He appealed directly to us under R.R. 1:2-1(c) prior to the amendment of October 5, 1967.

The killing occurred in the course of a holdup. The deceased, Ronald Sandlin, age 18, was an attendant at a service station in Lakewood. McKnight knew the deceased well, they having been employed together at other places. Early on the morning of August 7, 1966 McKnight and one Charles Holland, with whose sister McKnight lived, went to the

service station to commit robbery. McKnight ordered gas and a new tire. After Sandlin affixed the tire, McKnight struck Sandlin on the head with the tire iron. Holland took the cash register. McKnight and Holland placed the unconscious victim in the car. When Sandlin regained consciousness and asked to be taken to a hospital, saying, "All the fun that we have had Reginald. Why do this?", McKnight assured him they would do so but after disposing of the cash register. The car was driven to a wooded area in the vicinity of McKnight's residence. Sandlin was ordered into the woods where he was shot by Holland. Later Sandlin was buried in a shallow grave dug by both assailants. McKnight and Holland divided the money taken from the cash register and also from the deceased's person. The rear seat and backrest, which were stained with blood, were removed, washed, and placed in the basement of a neighbor's home.

McKnight was caught in this way: At 4:30 A.M., just prior to the holdup, Officer Gomez, riding his patrol car, saw two vehicles at the service station. One was a 1955 green and white Ford. At 4:45 A.M. the officer drove into the station, at which point the Ford was jacked up. McKnight and Holland both were there but the officer did not observe them sufficiently to identify either. At 5:00 A.M. a customer, finding the station unattended, sought a policeman. He met Officer Gomez who immediately went to the scene. A trail of blood was found and the absence of the cash register was noted.

The police checked the summons file and located one recently issued on a 1955 green and white Ford owned by McKnight. They went to Manchester Township where McKnight lived and at about 9:00 P.M. on August 8 found the car in the woods, some 50 yards from the road. The car was concealed by some brush used as camouflage. An examination by flashlight from the outside revealed a tire with apparent blood stains in the interior of the car, the absence of the rear seat and backrest, and the presence of a finger-print on the left rear hubcap. The hubcap was removed

about an hour after the car was found, and examination later proved the fingerprint was the victim's. The rear seat and backrest were recovered from the home of a neighbor where McKnight had left them, and an examination revealed blood of the same type as the deceased's.

Searching the woods, the police found the cash register, and finally at 7:00 A.M. on the 9th they came upon freshly disturbed earth, beneath which was the body of Sandlin. With the body were the victim's wallet and a discharged shell. Later defendant was apprehended. He confessed, naming Holland as the one who fired the shots. Through his confession the gun was found. An expert testified the shell found with Sandlin's body had been fired by it.

There was also evidence of incriminating statements by McKnight to residents in the area.

McKnight's guilt of this murder was established overwhelmingly. Indeed guilt was not really questioned at trial or before us. Nonetheless McKnight says he must be set free because certain evidence, the truthfulness of which is not at all challenged, was obtained, he claims, in violation of constitutional guarantees.


The first issue involves the admissibility of defendant's confession.

Defendant was arrested in Asbury Park at about 11:00 P.M. on August 9. At 12:30 or 12:45 A.M. on the 10th he was turned over to Ocean County authorities, who took him to Lakewood. The party reached Lakewood at 1:30 A.M. and defendant was immediately brought before a magistrate. The magistrate advised defendant of his right to counsel and that counsel would be appointed if he could not afford one. Defendant said he wanted an attorney and the magistrate said one would be appointed. The magistrate advised defendant of his right not to make a statement and that "if you do, anything you say may be held against you and in the future," to which defendant replied that he understood.

Mr. Doherty, the prosecutor, then gave all of the warnings required by Miranda v. State of Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2 d 694 (1966). Defendant obviously understood, and said "I would like a lawyer present before I answer any questions." The record before the magistrate then reads:

"Mr. Doherty: And I want one other thing clear on the record. Have you answered any questions since you have been in custody, about these complaints, to anyone?

The Defendant: Well, in Asbury Park they tried to ask me a couple of questions and --

Mr. Doherty: Did you give them any answers?

The Defendant: No, sir.

Mr. Doherty: All right.

The Defendant: I answered a few questions, but that was it. I figured like I was entitled to be represented --

Mr. Doherty: Right.

The Defendant: (Continuing) -- because I know of a few cases where you were not represented and if you say something they can twist it -- they twist it around.

Mr. Doherty: We are not going to ask you any questions because you told us that you want a lawyer before you do. All I am asking you now is did you answer any questions since you have been in custody -- did anybody ask you questions, about these offenses, that you answered?

The Defendant: About the offenses?

Mr. Doherty: Yes.

The Defendant: No, sir.

Mr. Doherty: So, so far you haven't given any statement to anybody and you don't intend to give one until you have a lawyer?

The Defendant: They asked me questions but I refused to answer them.

Mr. Doherty: All right."

Defendant was given copies of the complaints for robbery and murder in the presence of the magistrate. Defendant was placed in the Ocean County jail. The authorities made no attempt to question him.

At 9:00 A.M. on the 10th defendant executed a form application for assignment of counsel. At noon of that same day defendant asked a jail guard to deliver a note to the prosecutor. It read:

"I was suppose to meet Charles Holland in Newark at the Open End Bar located on Market and Adams Street this Friday or Saturday night. Please take him alive for he is the one that can free me of one of the complaint against me. He might be to his cousin house however I do not know the address. If possible I would like to see the Prosecutor for the State. He told me his name in Court however I forgot it. This is very very important that I see him right away for he wanted me to answer some question in Court but I was to drunk to answer them. So if I may see him tomorrow or Friday morning I can answer the question that he wanted to know. Thank you very much."

As a result of this note defendant was taken that same day to the courthouse where at 4:30 P.M. an assistant prosecutor, referring to defendant's note, again fully advised him in harmony with Miranda, and defendant stating his desire to tell what he knew without the aid of counsel, Lt. Herbert of the prosecutor's staff undertook to interrogate him. Preliminarily Lt. Herbert also repeated the Miranda warnings. An oral confession ensued, following which defendant led the officers to the place where he had hidden the murder weapon. At about ...

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