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State v. Mitchell

Decided: January 28, 1992.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

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


This appeal concerns whether the petition for post-conviction relief brought by defendant, Darrell Mitchell, is barred by Rules 3:22-12 and 3:22-4. Six-and-a-half years after he had been sentenced on his guilty plea to felony-murder, Mitchell petitioned for post-conviction relief. His petition was thus filed well beyond the five-year deadline established by Rule 3:22-12. Moreover, in contravention of the bar imposed under Rule 3:22-4, defendant based his petition on a ground that he could have raised but did not on direct appeal. This opinion underscores the importance of the foregoing Rules and emphasizes that this case does not present the type of exceptional circumstances that would justify their relaxation.


On November 3, 1981, defendant and James Ryles were involved in the robbery and beating of John Brennan, an eighty-year-old man. A month later, on December 4, 1981, the victim died of pneumonia, which had arisen as a complication of the beating.

Both Mitchell and Ryles were indicted for first-degree robbery and felony-murder. Their accounts of the events differed significantly. Mitchell claimed that he was simply a lookout for

Ryles and did not participate in the beating; Ryles claimed that Mitchell was primarily responsible.

On June 4, 1982, Mitchell pleaded guilty to felony-murder. In exchange, the State agreed to dismiss the indictment for first-degree robbery and to recommend a maximum sentence of thirty years of imprisonment with a twelve-year period of ineligibility for parole. In response to repeated inquiries concerning his understanding of the charge and the plea agreement, Mitchell consistently expressed his understanding of and agreement to the plea and specifically acknowledged that he was pleading "guilty as a participant in the homicide of the victim * * *." He explained the evening's events in his own words by stating that Ryles had approached him saying "he knew where to make a few dollars," and that he had accompanied Ryles knowing that Ryles intended to rob an elderly gentleman and that defendant was to be the lookout. Mitchell testified that he had observed Ryles beating the man and that he had received five dollars for his participation in the robbery.

The trial court then confirmed Mitchell's understanding of the plea agreement and its implications. Finding that Mitchell's plea was knowing and voluntary and that there was a factual basis, the court accepted the guilty plea. Prior to sentencing Mitchell, the Judge presided over his co-defendant's trial.

Mitchell was sentenced on July 15, 1982. During the sentencing hearing, his attorney indicated that defendant had "gone over every page" of the presentence report and had found no errors except for a misspelling of his attorney's name. Of relevance to the plea's factual basis, the report stated that an autopsy attributed the cause of death to pneumonia caused by a "massive subdural hematoma," a brain hemorrhage. Defendant's attorney indicated that Mitchell expected a heavy sentence because he knew "what he did was wrong." Mitchell himself expressed his remorse, stating that he was "very sorry that the incident I was involved in transpired in the taking of

one's life * * *." The court sentenced defendant to the maximum sentence allowable under the plea agreement: thirty years of incarceration with a twelve-year-period of parole ineligibility.

In his direct appeal filed in August 1982, the only claim Mitchell raised was that the sentence imposed was excessive in light of his cooperation with the authorities in testifying against Ryles. Finding that claim "clearly without merit," the Appellate Division affirmed defendant's conviction in an unpublished opinion.

Six-and-a-half years after he had been sentenced, Mitchell filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief. His primary contention was that his alleged role as a lookout was insufficient to establish a factual basis for his guilt for felony-murder. Mitchell also contended that in determining his sentence the court had inappropriately considered evidence beyond that offered by defendant in his plea hearing.

The same Judge who had accepted defendant's guilty plea, sentenced him, and presided over his co-defendant's trial heard Mitchell's petition for post-conviction relief. The trial court did not address the procedural grounds for barring Mitchell's petition for post-conviction relief but instead evaluated the merits of his substantive claim and concluded that even assuming that Mitchell had been only a lookout, a sufficient factual basis for defendant's plea had been established. The court did not address Mitchell's contention that he had been improperly sentenced.

Defendant appealed, contending for the first time that the causal link between Brennan's beating and his subsequent death had not been demonstrated with enough certainty to constitute a factual basis for his plea.

The Appellate Division reversed the Law Division's denial of the petition. Noting that Mitchell's co-defendant had been acquitted of felony-murder, the court reasoned that Ryles' acquittal might have been due to inadequate proof of causation

between the beating of the victim and his subsequent death. Recognizing that the causal question would be identical in the two cases, the court believed that Ryles' acquittal indicated that there might not have been a sufficient factual basis to justify the trial court's acceptance of Mitchell's guilty plea.

With a nod in the direction of the procedural Rules, which should have barred Mitchell's petition, the court believed that the potential for inJustice might provide sufficient grounds to relax the Rules. To allow the Law Division to explore the "disparate Dispositions of the felony murder charges," the Appellate Division remanded the case, instructing the court to evaluate "whether the interests of Justice require the court to grant defendant relief from his plea."

The State petitioned for certification, contending that the Appellate Division had erred in improperly relaxing Rule 3:22-12 and in relaxing Rule 3:22-4 by permitting defendant to raise an issue he could have raised on direct appeal. The State also argued that, on the merits, there was a sufficient factual basis for defendant's plea. We granted certification, 126 N.J. 322, 598 A.2d 882 (1991).


Rule 3:22-12 provides:

A petition to correct an illegal sentence may be filed at any time. No other petition shall be filed pursuant to this rule more than 5 years after rendition of the judgment or sentence sought to be attacked unless it alleges facts showing that the delay beyond said time was due to defendant's excusable neglect.

There are good reasons for such a Rule. As time passes after conviction, the difficulties associated with a fair and accurate reassessment of the critical events multiply. Achieving "Justice" years after the fact may be more an illusory temptation than a plausibly attainable goal when memories have dimmed, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence is lost or unattainable. Those difficulties have not gone unnoticed by our courts. See, e.g., State v. Dillard, 208 N.J. Super. 722, 727, 506 A.2d 848 (App.Div.) ("with the passage of time it

may become more difficult to rule upon the allegations in a petition for post-conviction relief * * *."), certif. denied, 105 N.J. 527, 523 A.2d 169 (1986); State v. Marshall, 244 N.J. Super. 60, 69, 581 A.2d 538 (Law Div.1990) (faced with the potential prospect of evaluating the constitutionality of a twenty-two-year-old conviction, "it would be a practical impossibility * * * to conduct a proper hearing"). Moreover, the Rule serves to respect the need for achieving finality of judgments and to allay the uncertainty associated with an unlimited possibility of relitigation. The Rule therefore strongly encourages those believing they have grounds for post-conviction relief to bring their claims swiftly, and discourages them from sitting on their rights until it is too late for a court to render Justice.

The Rule is not rigid and monolithic. When an illegal sentence is in question, no time limitations apply. When the petitioner demonstrates excusable neglect, a court may disregard the five-year bar. And as with all of our Rules, where the interests of Justice so require, the Rule will be relaxed. Rule 1:1-2. However, the facts of this case do not present sufficient grounds for lifting the five-year bar; doing so under the present circumstances would render the Rule largely meaningless.


Rule 3:22-12 allows a court to review a petition filed more than five years from the date of the judgment of conviction if the petition alleges facts demonstrating that the delay was due to the defendant's excusable neglect. See, e.g., State v. Sloan, 226 N.J. Super. 605, 612, 545 A.2d 230 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 113 N.J. 647, 552 A.2d 171 (1988). If the petitioner does not allege sufficient facts, the Rule bars the claim. See State v. Culley, 250 N.J. Super. 558, 561, 595 A.2d 1098 (App.Div.1991); State v. Jenkins, 221 N.J. Super. 286, ...

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