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State v. Benedetto

Decided: July 18, 1990.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD BENEDETTO, JR., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

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

Garibaldi

This appeal presents a narrow question regarding the "state of mind" exception to the hearsay rule, Evid.R. 63(12)(a). The issue is whether the trial court committed prejudicial error in admitting certain hearsay statements of the victim recounting threats he had perceived because of an overdue debt that he owed defendant's father. The Appellate Division, which ruled that such statements were expressions of fear excludible under State v. Machado, 111 N.J. 480, 545 A.2d 174 (1988), reversed defendant's murder conviction and remanded the matter for a new trial. We granted certification 117 N.J. 73, 563 A.2d 835 (1989), and now reverse the Appellate Division.

I

During the early morning hours of October 6, 1986, Anthony Mautone was shot and killed in his garage recording studio in Newark, N.J. An investigation disclosed that Mautone had died at approximately 3:00 a.m. from a single .32 caliber gunshot wound to the back of his head fired at close range. His body had been found lying on the floor in front of his stereo. Shortly thereafter, Ronald Benedetto, Jr. was charged with his murder.*fn1 The theory of the State's case was that Benedetto lured Mautone to the studio on the pretext of a drug exchange and killed him because of a debt Mautone owed Benedetto's father.

On the previous evening, Sunday, October 5, 1986, Mautone had been working as a disc jockey at Society Hill, a Morristown night club. Ordinarily, Mautone would visit with his girlfriend, Anna Prassinos, at the club and then afterward at her home before returning to Newark. Prassinos testified that shortly after midnight on October 6, Mautone had received a phone call at the club. Mautone had later told Prassinos that the caller had been Benedetto, Jr., asking that Mautone meet him after work to sell him cocaine. After a second telephone call, Mautone had told Prassinos that he could not go to her house that night because he had to meet Benedetto, Jr., at his studio garage in Newark. During their conversation that evening Mautone also told Prassinos that he had borrowed approximately $7,000 from Benedetto's father that he had not yet repaid. Specifically, Prassinos testified as follows:

Q: And what did he tell you about on that evening?

A: It was a debt that he had with Ronnie, Jr.'s father, Ronald Benedetto, Sr.

Q: Did you discuss the amount of that debt and the circumstances under which that debt came into being?

A: Yes, I did.

Q: Would you tell the jury about that conversation that you had with Anthony Mautone?

A: A debt involved Anthony borrowing money previous years before I had met him, the amount of $7,000, to which Anthony used a little over $4,000 to buy drugs with, and the rest was used for debt, to pay other people off debts that he had.

Q: And did you discuss with him whether or not he had paid that debt back to Benedetto, Sr.?

A: Yes, I did discuss that with him, and from the conversation we had the debt was not paid back to Benedetto, Sr. It was not paid back.

Q: Did he tell you whether or not any threats had been made to him regarding that debt?

A: Oh, yes.

Q: And could you tell the jury about that?

A: He had felt threatened because he didn't know what was going on. He had been followed previous to his death two or three weeks before his death, he had been threatened, he had been followed by a white car when he took his girlfriend of many years to the movies one night, and he just wasn't sure, every time ...


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