For modification -- Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Handler. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pashman, J.
Upon a plea of non vult to an indictment for murder, defendant Egon Leggeadrini was sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 25 to 30 years, the latter being the equivalent of the maximum sentence permitted upon a conviction of murder in the second degree. See N.J.S.A. 2A:113-3, 4. The judge denied a motion made pursuant to R. 3:21-10 to reduce the sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed in an unreported opinion. In this appeal, defendant attacks the severity of that sentence.*fn1 In weighing the factors relevant to appellate review of sentences, we are persuaded that under the totality of the circumstances presented in this case the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive. Accordingly, we modify the judgment of the Appellate Division.
Leggeadrini was charged with murder as a result of his fatal shooting of a 26 year old neighbor on the evening of July 24, 1975. The incident was precipitated by a heated dispute between the victim and defendant and his wife over possible damage to defendant's property caused by the victim's ballplaying activities in the immediate vicinity of defendant's front yard. The controversy was further exacerbated
by alleged abusive remarks made by the victim to Mrs. Leggeadrini prior to defendant's involvement in the argument. There apparently had been previous confrontations between defendant's wife and the victim concerning the same issue which, rather than preventing a recurrence of the situation, had allowed the problem to fester.
On the date of the tragedy, Leggeadrini overheard the argument between his wife and the victim from inside his home. Shortly after his wife reentered the house, he proceeded outside to argue further with the victim and to rebuke him for the manner in which he had spoken to Mrs. Leggeadrini. When the victim declined to continue the argument any longer, defendant stated that he would shoot him. Leggeadrini immediately grabbed a .22 caliber rifle from inside the doorway of the house, cocked it and shot the victim, who then ran across the street to his house where he collapsed and died. The defendant went back into his house and summoned the police. In defendant's version of the incident, he intended to do no more than "hurt" the victim, claiming that he would have fired more than one shot had he intended to kill. Leggeadrini was arrested the next day and subsequently released on bail. After initially pleading not guilty to the charges, he retracted those pleas and entered pleas of non vult to the murder indictment and of guilty to the murder while armed indictment.
At the December 1, 1975 sentencing, defendant's counsel informed the court that defendant's plea of non vult had not been the product of a plea bargain and that consequently the State was making no recommendation as to sentence. No objections were made to the contents of the presentence report or to the psychiatric evaluation of defendant. These documents presented a composite picture of an individual who had been a solid member of the community and enjoyed a stable family life. At the time of the criminal incident Leggeadrini was 66 years old. Prior to his retirement in 1972, he had been a productive citizen holding continuous employment at the same job for 31 years. Leggeadrini had no
previous criminal record. He and his wife lived on modest pension and social security benefits which he supplemented with part-time work for the local school board.
Defense counsel alluded to defendant's age, lack of prior criminal involvement, stable background and extreme remorse as personal factors mitigating any need for a substantial period of incarceration. He argued further that the offense was an isolated incident -- an over-reaction to momentary stress unlikely to be repeated. In a brief statement to the court, defendant displayed perplexity as to how a man of his temperament who had minded his own business for many years could have fallen into such a predicament. He reiterated his version of the non-intentional nature of the killing.
The sentencing judge agreed that rehabilitation was not the primary sentencing consideration with respect to murders committed in emotion-laden circumstances. The minimal likelihood of repetition of such a "once-in-a-lifetime" act substantially lessens the need for "specific deterrence" of the offender. The effect of the sentence on society as a deterrent to such conduct was given primary consideration by the judge and the non-intentional nature of the offense was given little weight. He felt defendant's conduct contained all the elements of second degree murder and warranted substantial punishment because of the seriousness of the harm resulting from a relatively trivial provocation. The sentence imposed was accompanied by a recommendation that it be served in a minimum security facility. The judge's reasons for the sentence imposed, R. 3:21-4(e), were orally stated at the hearing.
Defendant made a timely motion for reconsideration of his sentence which was heard by the same judge on January 9, 1976. Defendant's counsel acknowledged that no change of circumstances was presented, but again emphasized that mitigating circumstances militated against the severity of the sentence imposed. In support of this contention, he again cited defendant's age, lack of previous criminal record, employment
stability, long-term residency, good citizenship and contributions to society. Defendant's extreme remorse, as evidenced by voluntary pleas to the charges, was said to demonstrate that his rehabilitation was well under way. The sentencing judge denied the motion and reaffirmed his original sentence, noting that he had weighed all of the factors argued by defense counsel in his previous determination. The judge reiterated his conclusion that defendant had no need of rehabilitation or specific deterrence and stated that his sentence was primarily based on considerations of general deterrence necessitated by the gravity of the offense. The judge then rejected defense counsel's plea for a sentence that offered, in light of defendant's age and life expectancy, a realistic ...