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State v. Rhett

Decided: February 4, 1992.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOHN RHETT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance in part; for reversal in part; for 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, John Rhett, was convicted of first-degree robbery, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1, and attempted murder, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3. The Appellate Division upheld the convictions in an unpublished opinion, and we granted certification, 126 N.J. 323, 598 A.2d 883 (1991). Because the trial court incorrectly charged the jury on the requisite mental state for attempted murder, we reverse the conviction for that offense.

During 1986 and 1987, defendant sporadically worked at a food-processing plant, unloading bulk food. Because of a dispute with his supervisor, defendant was fired on December 17, 1987. On December 24, 1987, he left his girlfriend's apartment apparently to purchase some cocaine. At approximately 1:00 a.m. on December 25, the security guard at the employer's plant admitted defendant into the workers' locker room, ostensibly to retrieve a pair of work boots. When they reached the locker room, defendant brutally beat the guard and stole a money-changing machine.

Defendant was indicted on charges of first-degree robbery, assault, theft, and attempted murder. The jury found him guilty of the robbery and attempted murder of the security guard. The trial court sentenced him to life with a twenty-five-year parole disqualifier for the attempted murder and a consecutive eighteen-year term with a nine-month parole disqualifier for the first-degree robbery conviction. Defendant urges reversal of both convictions because of an improper instruction on the definition of attempted murder. Because counsel made no objection at trial, we consider the issue as plain error. R. 2:10-2; see State v. Martin, 119 N.J. 2, 15, 573 A.2d 1359 (1990).

We recently described the importance of accurate jury charges:

Correct charges are essential for a fair trial. A charge is a road map to guide the jury, and without an appropriate charge a jury can take a wrong turn in its deliberations. Thus, the court must explain the controlling legal principles and the questions the jury is to decide. So critical is the need for accuracy that erroneous instructions on material points are presumed to be reversible error. [ Martin, supra, 119 N.J. at 15, 573 A.2d 1359 (citations omitted).]

The relevant portion of the charge reads:

The determination for you to make in regard the charge of attempted murder in this case is whether the defendant admitted attempt to commit the killing purposely or knowingly as it has been defined.

Now, an attempt. A person is guilty of an attempt to commit a crime if acting with that kind of culpability which is required. In other words, acting purposely or acting knowingly the person purposely engages in the conduct which would constitute the crime if the attendant circumstances were as a reasonable person would believe them to be. So, you must find that the

defendant had same state of mind that would be necessary to find him guilty of murder, and then you must find that it wasn't his fault that the person didn't die is guess it one way to put it. Some reasonable person would have felt or believed would have led the result with which he is charged.

Even after making due allowance for mistakes in transcription, the charge is plainly wrong. The basic error is in the instruction that defendant may be found guilty if he acted "knowingly," when only a "purposeful" intent will suffice. To this extent, an attempt to commit murder differs from murder itself, the ...


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