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State v. Hale

Decided: August 23, 1971.


Martino, A.j.s.c.


Petitioner Matthew James Hale, Jr. was charged and tried for the murder of his wife on or about midnight, May 28, 1961. On June 29, 1962 a jury returned a verdict of guilty in the first degree with a recommendation of life imprisonment. Petitioner was thereupon committed to the New Jersey State Prison and has since been transferred to Leesburg Prison where he is now confined.

A direct appeal to the Supreme Court of New Jersey resulted in an affirmance of the conviction, State v. Hale , 45 N.J. 255 (1965). A petition for rehearing filed October 29, 1965 was denied on November 16, 1965. The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari on June 20,

1966. Hale v. New Jersey , 384 U.S. 884, 86 S. Ct. 1981, 16 L. Ed. 2d 1001. There have been no post-conviction proceedings in this State other than the appeals relating to the conviction from which relief is sought under the instant petition.

An in forma pauperis application for a writ of habeas corpus was filed with the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, and on June 5, 1969 a memorandum and order by Chief Judge Augelli, was entered dismissing the petition, without prejudice, for failure to exhaust available remedies on the issue of petitioner's competency to stand trial. The instant petition ensued.

Facts pertinent to the disposition of petitioner's application are as follows:

On or about March 7, 1966, approximately eight months after defendant's conviction had been affirmed, the United States Supreme Court decided Pate v. Robinson , 383 U.S. 375, 86 S. Ct. 836, 15 L. Ed. 2d 815. The court there held that the failure to hold a hearing on a defendant's competency to stand trial, where the evidence raises a " bona fide doubt" as to such competency, is a denial of due process of law. While petitioner could not have argued that he was entitled to a trial competency hearing under Pate on his direct appeal, it is evident that the decision was available to defendant well within the five-year period of limitation for seeking post-conviction relief pursuant to R. 3:22-12.

Since the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmance of his conviction and up to the filing of the present application, petitioner has not been represented by counsel.

The petition herein was filed beyond the five-year period of limitation provided for under R. 3:22-12. In his application petitioner asserts as his primary ground for relief that "despite compelling evidence that petitioner might not be competent to stand trial, the trial court did not order a statutory hearing to determine that fact," contrary to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

The substance of the psychiatric testimony at petitioner's trial was concerned with his mental condition as of May 28, 1961, the date of the homicide. Without the benefit of the complete transcript of the trial below, reliance is placed upon the New Jersey Supreme Court's account of the proofs adduced at that trial which were aimed at establishing Hale's alleged insanity at the time of the crime. Hale's background reveals that he had been in trouble at an early age as a result of breaking into a school and a church. He began drinking alcohol in his teens. Hale never finished high school, enlisting in the Marines following his third year. Although he served with some distinction in Korea, he was twice absent without leave when not on combat duty. Although he was able to hold a job on his return from the service, he continued his excessive drinking habit. He talked of ending his life, on one occasion slashed his wrist, while on another threatened to shoot himself. Besides threatening to do harm to himself, he threatened his brother Pressley, a paraplegic, and discussed robbing two business establishments.

On several occasions defendant received psychiatric treatment, spending six weeks in a private hospital in Pennsylvania but failing to follow out-patient treatments. Several psychiatrists testified for defendant, and one for the prosecution. All agreed that defendant was psychologically disturbed and emotionally unstable. One of defendant's doctors testified that at the time of the murder defendant had lost contact with reality. All felt that he was in need of psychiatric care, and in its absence his condition was deteriorating.

Two of the experts were of the opinion that defendant knew the nature and quality of his acts and the difference between right and wrong. One felt that while defendant probably knew what he was doing, he was unable to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the crime. The fourth expert stated that he was unable to express an opinion. State v. Hale, supra , 45 N.J. at 261-262.

It should be noted that notwithstanding the apparent abundance of testimony with respect to petitioner's sanity at the time of the commission of the crime, at no time during the proceedings was defendant's competence to stand trial brought into question, either from observation or at the suggestion of counsel. Petitioner seems to have conducted himself in an entirely normal fashion, and his counsel never urged any present insanity or any inability of defendant to cooperate with him during the trial.

Petitioner raises two points in support of a contention that his failure to file a timely application for post-conviction relief is due to "excusable neglect." The first of these points fails to speak to the immediate issue at bar. While admittedly petitioner could not have advanced the Pate argument on his direct appeal, it is clear that said decision was available to defendant well within the five-year period of limitation for post-conviction relief and could have been urged therein upon timely application.

Petitioner's second point, that he was not aware of the time limitation of R. 3:22-12 and that a defendant acting pro se should not be bound by time limits in the court rules to the same extent as a member of the bar, has some merit.

At the outset it should be noted that the construction of the words "excusable neglect," as used in R. 3:22-12, is a novel question in this jurisdiction. With due respect to the policy reasoning behind finality of judgments, State v. Blanchard , 98 N.J. Super. 22 (Law Div. 1967), it is clear that New Jersey's attitude with respect to compliance with procedural rules is consistent with federal decisions holding that ...

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