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State v. Oglesby

Decided: January 23, 1991.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County.

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


Defendant, Walter Oglesby, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. He appeals as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(3). At trial, defendant did not dispute that he had killed the victim. Instead he relied on the affirmative defense of insanity. N.J.S.A. 2C:4-1. In its jury instructions, the court charged not only on that defense, but also on diminished capacity. N.J.S.A. 2C:4-2. The charge, however, placed on defendant the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that he suffered from a mental disease or defect at the time of the homicide. This instruction impermissibly relieved the State of part of its burden of proving that the homicide was knowing or purposeful. Because of that error, defendant's conviction must be reversed.


Although the State acknowledges that the diminished-capacity charge was erroneous, it claims that the error was harmless because the defendant did not establish his claim of diminished capacity by sufficient evidence to justify such a charge. Our factual recitation, therefore, focuses on the evidence relevant to Oglesby's mental state at the time of the homicide.

Oglesby sustained brain injuries in an automobile accident when he was sixteen. As a result of that accident, he was unconscious for three days and hospitalized for over a month. From that time, according to his family, he was violent, self-destructive, and suffered from hallucinations.

At trial, his sister recalled an incident in 1979, after the auto accident, when Oglesby took her son for a walk, disappeared for seven or eight hours, and returned in a confused state, claiming that he had talked to Jesus and Mary. His brother and sisters testified that he had been hospitalized several times for mental illness in the 1970s and 80s.

Their testimony tended to establish the following additional facts concerning Oglesby's mental state. In 1981, he was

struck by a truck, necessitating the amputation of one of his legs. With part of the settlement proceeds, he purchased a new Lincoln. Soon, however, he said he could not ride in the car because it was inhabited by a phantom named "Boyaz." Fearful of Boyaz, Oglesby gave the car to his brother and purchased another new Lincoln for himself. Over the years, down to the time of the homicide, Boyaz frequently appeared to defendant and instructed him on the mysteries of death.

Oglesby also engaged in other forms of bizarre conduct. In 1983, in a possible suicide attempt, he drove his car over a cliff, and told investigating police that he had been "going home to God." On other occasions, while visiting his sister, who owned no farm animals, he would sit, stare, and describe non-existent cows in her backyard. He insisted that she owned "the biggest cows" and, when she asked him to describe them, stated that they had "lots of legs."

In 1983, Oglesby's family committed him to the Georgia Mental Health Institution for five days. Although Oglesby did not stay at the hospital long enough for a final diagnosis, the tentative diagnosis was schizophreniform disorder, a short-term form of schizophrenia.

On the critical issue of defendant's sanity, the defense and prosecution psychiatrists differed sharply. The State psychiatrist, Dr. Weiss, testified that defendant was competent to stand trial, a conclusion that was accepted by the trial court, and that Oglesby was sane at least when Dr. Weiss examined him. He suggested defendant's mental problems, if any, were temporary and episodic. Defendant's psychiatrist, Dr. Rushton, disagreed. He testified both that defendant was incompetent to stand trial and that for fifteen years he had been a paranoid schizophrenic. In Dr. Rushton's opinion, Oglesby could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the murder and was legally insane at the time of trial.

Defendant's mental and emotional deterioration throughout the early 1980s was reflected in his stormy relationship with

the victim, Muriel Russell. During that relationship, which lasted for approximately eight years, Russell gave birth to their son. In 1982, Oglesby moved to Georgia, and in 1983 convinced Russell to join him. In 1984, she left him three times to return to New Jersey. The first two times Oglesby convinced her to return to Georgia. Russell left the third and final time in August 1984. A few days later, Oglesby followed Russell to New Jersey, where he joined her.

On September 27, 1984, they checked into the Hillside Motor Lodge in Cherry Hill, to which they returned on the night of September 28. The following morning a housekeeper discovered Russell's corpse. Russell had been hacked and stabbed to death. Oglesby was gone. Police investigation revealed that Oglesby registered at a motel in College Park, Maryland at 12:30 a.m. on September 30.

The Camden police arrested defendant outside his mother's home on October 1, 1984. He claimed that he was innocent and that he had just returned from Europe.

In 1984, a Camden County grand jury indicted Oglesby for capital murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) or -3a(2); possession of weapons for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d; possession of weapons under circumstances not manifestly appropriate, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5d; and two counts of hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3b(1). The jury convicted defendant on all counts.

In the penalty phase, the jury found one aggravating factor, that the murder was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(c) ("aggravating factor c(4)(c)"), and two mitigating factors, that the defendant had no significant history of prior criminal activity, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(g), and that defendant had been under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(5)(e). The jury further found that the aggravating factor outweighed the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, thereby finding that death was the appropriate penalty.


At the conclusion of the guilt phase, the court's charge included instructions on the issue of defendant's diminished capacity. Parts of the charge properly placed on the State the burden of proving each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The diminished-capacity part, however, improperly required defendant to prove a mental disease or defect by a preponderance of the evidence. As we have now instructed trial courts, the State always bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt the culpable mental state, and the defendant need not prove by a preponderance of the evidence the alleged mental disease or defect. State v. Moore, 122 N.J. 420, 425-27, 585 A.2d 864, 866-67 (1991).

In Moore, we reviewed the issue of diminished capacity. We would serve no useful purpose by again reviewing it here. Neither need we revisit the history of mental states as outlined in State v. Breakiron, 108 N.J. 591, 532 A.2d 199 (1987). In Moore, we described our attempt in Breakiron to construe N.J.S.A. 2C:4-2, which defines diminished capacity, to accommodate due-process concerns; the Third Circuit's conclusion that the statute was beyond salvation, Humanik v. Beyer, 871 F.2d 432, 442-43 (1989); the Chief Justice's directive to the trial courts to follow Humanik, see 124 N.J.L.J. 1562 (Dec. 28, 1989) (summarizing the directive); and the 1990 statutory amendment removing the preponderance-of-the-evidence burden from defendants, L. 1990, c. 63. See Moore, supra, 122 N.J. at 431-34, 585 A.2d at 869-71.

In this tragic case, we do not break any new ground. The outcome is controlled by the now-settled principle that if there is any evidence that defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect that might affect his ability to form an intent to kill, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that such disease or defect did not prevent defendant from acting with the requisite mental state. See N.J.S.A. 2C:1-13a.

At the time of the trial, N.J.S.A. 2C:4-2, the statute pertaining to the "defense" of diminished capacity, provided:

Evidence that the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect is admissible whenever it is relevant to prove that the defendant did not have a state of mind which is an element of the offense. In the absence of such evidence, it may be presumed that the defendant had no mental disease or defect which would negate a state of mind which is an element of the offense. Mental disease or defect is an affirmative defense which must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence.

In its charge, the court began by explaining the State's general burden to prove defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt:

This defendant, as are all defendants in criminal cases, is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. * * * The burden of proof is on the State and it never shifts, it remains on the State throughout the entire trial of the case. No burden with respect to proof is imposed on the defendant, he is not obliged to prove his innocence. Unless the State proves the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is assumed to be innocent and is entitled to be acquitted.

The part of the charge specifically concerned with defendant's mental state contradicted that general explanation by placing on defendant the burden of proving his diminished capacity:

Now, apart from his general denial of guilt, the defendant maintains that he is not guilty because of the existence of a mental disease or defect which precluded him from forming the requisite mental state of acting with purpose or purposely. * * *

Mental disease or defect is an affirmative defense, and the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence is upon the defendant who asserts that defense. * * *

If you find the State has proved all the elements of each of the crimes and the defendant's participation in those crimes beyond a reasonable [doubt] and if you also find that the defendant had established the affirmative defense of mental disease or defect by a preponderance of the credible evidence, your verdict would be not guilty. If on the other hand, you find that the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt all of the essential elements of each of the crimes and the defendant's participation in those crimes and you also find that the State has disproved beyond a reasonable doubt this defense of mental disease or defect, then you must find the defendant guilty.

Taken together, these two portions of the instructions could have misled the jury to believing ...

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