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State v. Martin

Decided: May 17, 1990.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
DANIEL MARTIN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 213 N.J. Super. 426 (1986).

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J.

Pollock

Defendant, Daniel Martin, was found guilty of knowing and purposeful murder, felony murder, arson, and aggravated arson arising out of the death of a woman in a building that he set on fire. At sentencing, the felony-murder verdict was merged into the conviction for knowing and purposeful murder, and the arson verdict into the aggravated-arson conviction. On the knowing- and purposeful-murder verdict, the jury found that the death penalty was not appropriate, and defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. Defendant was sentenced to a concurrent ten-year term with five years of parole ineligibility on the aggravated-arson conviction.

The Appellate Division affirmed, 213 N.J. Super. 426, 517 A.2d 513 (1986). We granted defendant's petition for certification seeking reversal of the murder conviction, 108 N.J. 654, 532 A.2d 234 (1987). Because the charge incorrectly instructed the jury on the standard for finding that defendant's act caused the death of the victim, we reverse defendant's murder conviction.

I

On June 29, 1983, defendant and four others from Keyport attended a party in the apartment of Lois Baker on the third floor of a three-story wood-framed building in Keansburg. Defendant, who claimed he was intoxicated, stated that he had smoked marijuana and consumed four beers before the party, and four more beers and four shots of Southern Comfort at the party. Paul Wade, one member of the Keyport group, became involved in two altercations with other guests, including Mike Kilpatrick. After the second altercation, Baker told everyone from Keyport to leave. On leaving, defendant and Wade vandalized a motorcycle that they thought belonged to Kilpatrick and removed the rear-view mirrors, which defendant placed outside Baker's apartment.

Within fifteen minutes after defendant left Baker's apartment, another guest noticed that the building was on fire. Everyone escaped, except Barbara Quartz, who had fallen asleep after drinking alcoholic beverages at the party. She died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide intoxication.

According to defendant, he set the fire by lighting a paper bag containing trash that he found in the hallway by Lois Baker's door. Defendant testified:

I picked up the bag and walked down the steps with it. I was just, you know, throwing it around making a mess, you know, and I set it down and I lit up a cigarette. And the match -- I lit the paper bag on fire, you know, 'cause I thought maybe it would burn up the garbage, you know, not to spread or anything, just make, like make a mess of the bottom of the landing. And then, then I left.

I put the match on the bag and lit the bag, the top of the bag on fire. I thought it would make a mess of things. I didn't understand. I mean I didn't figure that it would, you know, cause a fire and spread or catch on anything. I thought it would just, you know, burn the garbage and go right out. I didn't mean to hurt nobody.

The State's version of the setting of the fire differed materially from that of defendant. According to the State's experts,

Frederick Dispensiere of the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, and Daniel Slowick, a fire insurance investigator, the fire was set by spreading kerosene between the ground floor and the second floor. Dispensiere concluded that the fire was deliberately set through the use of an "accelerant" at some point between those floors. He based his opinion on "[t]he degree of damage in the hallway, the absence of anything in that hallway combustible which could have created that much of a volume of fire, the depth of char, the rate at which the fire spread and the direction that it spread also." Dispensiere found "pour patterns" on the stairway between the first- and second-floor landings, which led him to suspect that an accelerant had been used in the fire. Gas chromatography tests performed on wood samples taken from this area of the building revealed the presence of kerosene. Baker kept kerosene in a plastic milk container outside the apartment, and seven days after the fire Dispensiere found a melted plastic container in the third-floor hallway. Slowick also concluded that the fire had been deliberately set through the use of kerosene. He found "pour patterns" at the top of the first-floor stairway. A lab analysis of wood samples that he took from this area revealed the presence of kerosene.

II

Initially we address the sufficiency of the evidence to submit to the jury the issue whether defendant knowingly or purposely killed the victim. At the end of both the State's case and of the entire case, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal on that issue. The trial court denied both motions, and the Appellate Division affirmed, 213 N.J. Super. at 435, 517 A.2d 513. We agree.

As defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a,

criminal homicide constitutes murder when:

(1) The actor purposely causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death; or

(2) The actor knowingly causes death or serious bodily injury resulting in death * * *.

Purposeful conduct is defined:

A person acts purposely with respect to the nature of his conduct or a result thereof if it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result. A person acts purposely with respect to attendant circumstances if he is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist. "With purpose," "designed," "with design" or equivalent terms have the same meaning. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(1).]

Knowing conduct is defined:

A person acts knowingly with respect to the nature of his conduct or the attendant circumstances if he is aware that his conduct is of that nature, or that such circumstances exist, or he is aware of a high probability of their existence. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of his conduct if he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result. "Knowing," "with knowledge" or equivalent terms have the same meaning. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(2).]

In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, the relevant inquiry is whether " any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Brown, 80 N.J. 587, 592, 404 A.2d 1111 (1979) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S. Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L. Ed. 2d 560, 573 (1979)). On its case, the State introduced into evidence defendant's videotaped confession in which he made conflicting statements and ultimately admitted setting fire to the staircase carpeting. Additionally, the State adduced testimony describing the circumstances surrounding defendant's acts and the expert testimony of Dispensiere and Slowick that the fire was deliberately set with an accelerant. That evidence was sufficient for a jury reasonably to infer that defendant was practically certain that his conduct would cause serious bodily harm or death, or that his conscious objective in setting the fire was to cause serious bodily harm or death.

We likewise find that the evidence was sufficient to justify submission of the matter to the jury at the close of the entire case. In his own defense, defendant testified that he saw "little flames" on the bag but did not endeavor to put out the fire because he thought it would self-extinguish. He testified

that he started the fire with a single match, that he merely intended to "make a mess of things," and that he did not intend to harm or kill anyone. Finally, defendant said that he did not know about the container of kerosene that Baker had placed in the hallway, and contended that there was no direct evidence that he knew the container even existed. Consequently, he contends that a reasonable jury could not conclude that he poured kerosene somewhere between the ground and second floor to accelerate the fire. We disagree.

Giving the State the benefit of all its favorable testimony, a reasonable jury could infer from the evidence that the defendant deliberately set the fire with the aid of kerosene. Given that inference and defendant's knowledge of the attendant circumstances, i.e., the wooden structure of the building, the number of people in the apartment, the fact that they, including Quartz, had been drinking, the evidence could support a finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(1) and (2) that defendant knowingly or purposely caused death or serious bodily injury resulting in death. See State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454, 459, 236 A.2d 385 (1967).

III

We likewise find that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the death of Quartz was causally connected to defendant's conduct. Our conclusion follows from our analysis of the definition of causation in N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3 and of the sufficiency of the evidence adduced to establish causation.

Defendant contends that even if a jury could conclude that he acted purposely or knowingly, supervening causes broke the chain of causation so that his conduct was not the cause of the death of the victim. Specifically, defendant argues that the death of Quartz was not a foreseeable, intended, or probable consequence of his conduct, but was caused by several intervening events or conditions. He points to the astroturf carpeting, which, according to his expert, Ralph Snavely, facilitated the

spread of the fire because of its petroleum rubber base. He also asserts that both the door to Baker's apartment and the building's front door were open, which allowed a rush of air to stoke the fire; that the kerosene, which accelerated the fire, was hidden on the third floor and known only to Ms. Baker, but not to him; and that the inoperability of the fire detectors and the absence of fire doors helped spread the fire. Finally, he contends Quartz, who registered a brain alcohol content of .137, contributed to her own death through her intoxication. Reasoning from these facts, defendant concludes that the death of Quartz was too remotely related to his conduct to permit a finding that he was the cause of her death.

Under the New Jersey Penal Code (the New Jersey Code), causation is determined not by the common-law concept of proximate cause, but by reference to the definition of causation in N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3, which provides:

a. Conduct is the cause of a result when:

(1) It is an antecedent but for which the result in question would not have occurred; and

(2) The relationship between the conduct and result satisfies any additional causal requirements imposed by the code or by the law defining the offense.

b. When the offense requires that the defendant purposely or knowingly cause a particular result, the actual result must be within the design or contemplation, as the case may be, of the actor, or, if not, the actual result must involve the same kind of injury or harm as that designed or contemplated and not be too remote, accidental in its occurrence, or dependent on another's volitional act to have a just bearing on the actor's liability or on the gravity of his offense.

c. When the offense requires that the defendant recklessly or criminally negligently cause a particular result, the actual result must be within the risk of which the actor is aware or, in the case of criminal negligence, of which he should be aware, or, if not, the actual result must involve the same kind of injury or harm as the probable result and must not be too remote, accidental in its occurrence, or dependent on another's volitional act to have a just bearing on the actor's liability or on the gravity of his offense.

d. A defendant shall not be relieved of responsibility for causing a result if the only difference between what actually occurred and what was designed, contemplated or risked is that a different person or property was injured or affected or that a less serious or less extensive injury or harm occurred.

e. When causing a particular result is a material element of an offense for which absolute liability is imposed by law, the element is not established unless the actual result is a probable consequence of the actor's conduct.

As the statute makes clear, "causation" is a term of art, the meaning of which varies with the mental state of the actor. It means one thing when an offense is committed knowingly or purposely, N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3b, and something else for a crime of strict or absolute liability, N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3e, such as felony murder. Thus, "causation" assumes a different meaning from its use in ordinary discourse. State v. Smith, 210 N.J. Super. 43, 55, 509 A.2d 206 (App.Div.1986), certif. denied, 105 N.J. 582, 523 A.2d 210 (1986).

With some significant differences, the New Jersey Code is based substantially on the Model Penal Code. The underlying premise of both codes is that problems regarding variations between the actual and designed or contemplated results are problems of culpability rather than metaphysical problems of causation. II New Jersey Code: The Final Report of the New Jersey Law Commission § 2C:2-3 commentary at 50 (1971) (II N.J.Code). Consequently, in assessing whether a defendant's conduct is the cause of a remote result, both codes focus on whether the actual result justly bears on the defendant's culpability for the offense. See Model Penal Code § 2.03 comment at 261-63 (1985); Model Penal Code § 2.03 comment at 133-35 (Tent. Draft No. 4 1955).

The initial requirement for a finding of causation is that the actor's conduct must be "an antecedent but for which the result in question would not have occurred." N.J.S.A. 2C:2-3a(1). Under this "but-for" test, the defendant's conduct is deemed a cause of the event if the event would not have occurred without that conduct. Conversely, a defendant's conduct is not considered a cause if the event would have occurred without it. See W.P. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owens, Prosser & Keeton on The Law of Torts § 41 at 266 (5th ed. 1984). Here, defendant acknowledges that the death of ...


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