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State v. Lamb

Decided: December 8, 1976.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT-CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
SARAH JEAN LAMB, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT-CROSS-APPELLANT



For affirmance -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford and Schreiber and Judge Conford. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Sullivan, J.

Sullivan

Defendant, Sarah Jean Lamb, was convicted of second degree murder for the fatal stabbing of her estranged husband and was sentenced to a term of 12 to 15 years to be served in the New Jersey Correctional Institute for Women. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the judgment of conviction finding trial errors which it held, in the aggregate, prejudiced defendant's right to a fair trial. It ordered that defendant be tried. 134 N.J. Super. 575 (1975). We granted the State's petition for certification, 68 N.J. 494 (1975), and thereafter granted defendant's cross-petition which raised additional claims of trial error. 70 N.J. 138 (1975). We affirm the grant of a new trial.

The stabbing took place on March 23, 1973 when defendant was 18 years of age. She and her husband Larry Lamb had been married in June 1970. The marriage was not a harmonious one, being marked by the husband's erratic work habits, frequent drinking and leaving home on weekends, and recurring instances in which he physically abused defendant. Finally, some three weeks before the stabbing, the couple, who had been living in a small third floor apartment, decided to separate. However, an argument ensued over who was to stay in the apartment. Defendant testified that her husband beat her and put a knife to her throat when she refused to leave. However, when defendant said she was going to the police, he left the apartment.

A few days later an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation was made by the husband during which he again threatened to kill defendant. Subsequently, he asked defendant to let him have the apartment until he found another place to stay. Defendant agreed, and moved in with her family, the husband occupying the apartment for several days. He then removed all his belongings and went to live with his girlfriend. After her husband vacated the premises, defendant moved back in together with her cousin Charlene Powell.

On the night of the killing, defendant and Charlene were at a local bar when defendant's husband came in and asked defendant to go out with him. Defendant refused, saying she was going home. She, Charlene and a male companion, Ricky McCullough, left the bar and, after stopping for a hamburger, went to defendant's apartment. Charlene then returned to the bar. Defendant and Ricky remained in the apartment listening to records.

At this point defendant's husband telephoned. He had been drinking, was in an ugly mood and accused defendant of having "somebody" in the apartment with her. Defendant said she was alone. What happened thereafter was testified to by defendant at trial as follows:

Q. Then what happened?

A. A few minutes later I hear somebody coming up the steps because I was standing in the bedroom by the night stand because I went in the bedroom to answer the phone. So I heard somebody coming up the steps. So I heard the door. I didn't go open the door. I heard somebody. I hear the fist knock the door, because if you hit it with your fist it would open. You hit it very hard.

Q. With a motion like this the door would open?

A. It would come open. So Ricky was standing like in the living room and the bedroom.

Q. And the next thing you heard was the pound on the door and ...


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