On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
Michels, O'Brien and Conley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conley, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned).
The Opinion of the court was delivered by
CONLEY, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).
Following a jury trial defendant was convicted of purposeful or knowing murder in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and (2) (Count One); felony murder in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(3) (Count Two); second degree sexual assault in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2c(1) (Count Three), and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4d (Count Four). The jury was unable to reach a unanimous agreement on imposition of the death penalty on the capital murder conviction. Defendant was, therefore, sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with a 30-year parole disqualification on that conviction. The convictions for felony murder and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose were merged into the murder conviction. A consecutive sentence of ten years with a five-year parole disqualification was imposed on the aggravated sexual assault conviction. We affirm.
On October 30, 1986, Pamela Mathis found the body of her sister, Santa Maria Pinkston, on the living room floor of the apartment they shared. She was lying face down with a coat hanger twisted around her neck. She was naked from the waist down with her pants around her right ankle. An autopsy on the body revealed the following. The victim was 5'2 1/2" tall and had weighed 125 pounds. There was a deep furrow in her neck caused by the wire coat hanger that had been twisted into a three-inch loop. The pathologist opined that extreme force had been used in order to draw the hanger around the victim's neck to such a small diameter. There was also a four-inch arc shape marked on her chin consistent with the wire hanger. There were hemorrhages in her eyes and lungs caused by asphyxia. In addition, there were bruises to her head and back caused by blunt trauma. Her face and lips were swollen and there were injuries inside her lower lip. In addition, there were three small lacerations in the victim's anus, along with a fresh drop of dried blood in its outer margin. The pathologist opined that these lacerations occurred around the time of death and were consistent with the forceful insertion of a penis. A fresh stain on her left upper thigh near the pubic area tested positive for semen and was consistent with having come from a non-secretor. A test of defendant's blood revealed that he is a non-secretor.
According to the pathologist, the cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation due to a wire hanger ligature strangulation. The victim would have lost consciousness within 30 seconds of the time that the ligature was placed around her neck and that death would have occurred within three to five minutes. It was further the pathologist's opinion that the victim had been dead for at least 12 hours before her body was discovered. Her stomach contained two partial pieces of pickle and fragments of partially digested yellowish vegetative material consistent with french fries. Based on an examination of these substances, the pathologist opined that the victim ate between 20 minutes to one hour before her death.
Defendant was arrested for the victim's murder. While being held in the Mercer County Detention Center, defendant told a fellow inmate, Winfred Hebert, whom he had known for about seven years, that he killed the victim by choking her with his hands because he loved her and was very jealous. However, defendant claimed that the killing was not intentional. A few days after the body was discovered, defendant's mother gave a written statement to the police in which she said defendant had telephoned her from work the morning the body was discovered and asked whether the police had come to the house looking for him. He told her to tell anyone who inquired about him that he was home the previous evening at about 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. and remained there the rest of the night. At trial, however, Mrs. Darrian said when defendant called he asked whether the police were looking for him because of traffic tickets and she denied he had told her to tell people he had been home the night before at any particular time. Defendant's sister, Bernice, testified, however, that on the night the victim was killed, at about 10:00 p.m. she saw defendant at his house and he told her the victim had refused to have sex with him, that they had argued and fought, that he had raped her and thought he had killed her. He asked Bernice to tell the police he had been at home all night.
The events and circumstances leading to the victim's death as reflected by the State's evidence were the following. Defendant and the victim began dating in September or October 1985. At that time, the victim was a senior at Trenton High School. Shortly after graduation, the couple's relationship deteriorated. Defendant contracted sexually transmitted body lice (crabs) and blamed the victim for his condition. Defendant was angry and jealous and argued with her because he felt she was "fooling around" with someone else.
There were several incidents of violence displayed by defendant towards the victim during this time. In July 1986, the victim's sister visited her at defendant's home. When the victim told defendant she and her sister were planning to visit
their grandmother, defendant slapped her and told her "she wasn't going anywhere."
On the evening of August 19, 1986, Samuel Page, an acquaintance of the victim, drove her to work at Mr. Goodbuy's. Darryl Dean, a friend of Page, accompanied the pair. After arriving at their destination, the group stood talking near Page's car in the store parking lot. A few minutes later, defendant drove up, exited his car and approached the group with a tire jack in his raised hand. Defendant appeared upset and asked the victim in an angry tone of voice "is this your new Goddamn boyfriend?" When no one in the group responded, defendant ran to his car, put it in reverse and intentionally crashed into the rear of Page's vehicle on which Page had been sitting. Defendant then got out of his car and wielded the tire jack above his shoulder in a threatening manner.
On October 16, 1986, defendant went to the victim's apartment to get a hammer. They got into an argument over a chain defendant was wearing around his neck and given to him by someone else. The victim hit defendant and he smacked her face two or three times. Daniel Villavisar, who was working in an adjoining grocery store at the time, heard screaming, shouting and the sound of breaking glass. He discovered that the victim had attempted to break through a windowed door that separated her apartment from the grocery store. Her hands were covered with blood and she was kneeling on the floor, crying in pain. She reported that defendant had assaulted her. The left side of her face was swollen, she had a black eye and pain in her chest and face. The victim was transported to a hospital emergency room where she was treated and x-rayed. Two days later, defendant returned to the victim's apartment and told her that if he caught her with anyone else, he would kill her.
On Saturday, October 25, 1986, the victim saw defendant and told him that she still wanted to date him but she also wanted to go out with other men. Defendant refused this suggestion
and told her such an arrangement would not work. Between that date and October 29, 1986, the victim engaged in sexual relations with another person.
On October 29, 1986 between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. that evening, the victim walked by defendant's house and spoke with his brother who was sitting on the porch. She inquired whether defendant was at home. Upon discovering that defendant was still at work, she went home. However, Gwendolyn Alexander, who lived in a neighboring building and Bernice Darrian, the defendant's sister, saw defendant and the victim walking along the street in the direction of her apartment shortly after 9:00 p.m. on this same evening. Defendant was carrying a Burger King box and perhaps a soda, and the victim was carrying a Burger King bag.
At some point between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. the same evening, Thomas Braswell, an upstairs neighbor, walked through the hallway and heard what he thought were "passion noises" from someone "making love" emanating from the apartment. Upon arriving upstairs, Braswell informed his fiancee, Mary Williams, about the sounds. Williams went into the hallway and stood on the second floor landing. From this position she heard noises that sounded like "lovemaking". Then she heard a scuffling noise and something that sounded as if someone was trying to say something that was being muffled by a hand over the person's mouth. Williams thought that a fight or argument might be in progress.
At some time after 9:00 p.m. that same evening, nine year old Lisa Williams, who lived in the apartment directly above the victim, was awakened by the sound of a woman screaming for help in the victim's apartment. Lisa thought that a fight might be in progress. She awakened her brother, eight year old Dennis Williams, who also heard a woman screaming for help. In addition, Dennis heard a slamming sound emanating from the victim's apartment. The body was found the next morning.
A search of the apartment following discovery of the body revealed Burger King food wrappings and a Burger King cup with a straw, but no Burger King straw wrapper. A later search of defendant's car resulted in discovery of a Burger King straw wrapper. A fresh fingerprint from defendant's hand was discovered on the exterior of the rear door of the apartment.
About 30 minutes after the police arrived on the scene, defendant drove to the victim's apartment and parked across the street. Defendant asked the officers "what's happening?" He agreed to accompany the officers to police headquarters, where he was advised of his constitutional rights. He then gave a written statement in which he denied having been with the victim the previous night. Defendant claimed that he left his job at the Odd Lot at 8:58 p.m., bought a quart of beer at a bar and then drove home, arriving there at about 9:20 p.m. and went to sleep. The following morning, he went to his job at Saint Francis Hospital and when he arrived home from work that afternoon, was informed by his brother that police officers were at the victim's apartment. Defendant further maintained that he had terminated his relationship with the victim three weeks prior to her death because she told him of her desire to date other men, that 0 he had not engaged in sexual relations with her for about one month preceding her death, and had last seen her one week before her death.
Defendant, who was 6'2 1/2" and weighed 212 pounds at the time of trial but who said he only weighed 180 pounds at the time of the victim's death, gave testimony during the trial that was basically consistent with the statement he gave the police. He denied having killed the victim and claimed that he was not jealous or possessive of her. He admitted he telephoned his mother from work the following morning, but said it was to inquire about her well-being. He did not ask his mother whether the police had come looking for him, nor did he instruct her to say that he was home between 9:15 and 9:30 the previous
evening. He denied he ever saw or spoke with Hebert while he was housed in the Mercer County Detention Center.
Defendant's mother and brother testified that defendant arrived home from work between 9:15 and 9:30 on the evening of the victim's death. After defendant's brother told him that the victim had stopped by the house, defendant went upstairs to bed.
An expert in forensic pathology testified for defendant. Based on his review of an autopsy 1 photograph of the contents of the victim's stomach, he opined that she had eaten more than one hour before her death. He acknowledged that the lacerations and drop of blood found in the area of her anus were consistent with a sexual assault at the time of her ...