On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Salem County.
Baime, Conley and Villanueva. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
Following a protracted jury trial, defendant Pedro Laboy was found guilty of murder (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and (2)) and conspiracy to commit that offense (N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) and (2)).*fn1 On the murder conviction, defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 30 year parole disqualifier. The trial court imposed a concurrent sentence of 15 years on the conspiracy count.*fn2 In addition, defendant was assessed penalties totalling $1,030 payable to the Violent Crimes Compensation Board.
Defendant advances a plethora of arguments challenging the validity of his convictions. His principal contention is that his right to confrontation was violated by admission of his codefendant's hearsay statement blaming him for the killing. Defendant further claims that this error was compounded by the trial court's
failure to provide the jury with any guidance concerning how it was to consider his incriminatory statements. We agree.
Although the evidence of guilt was substantial, we are constrained to reverse defendant's convictions. We hold that the trial court committed error of constitutional dimension when it admitted evidence relating to a non-testifying codefendant's confession directly inculpating the defendant in the crimes charged. We also conclude that the trial court's instructions to the jury were faulty in various particulars. Our review of the record convinces us that defendant was deprived of a fair trial.
On January 19, 1989, Sara Pharo's lifeless body was found embedded in the sand on a beach located in Carneys Point Township. The police were immediately summoned. From a clearing in the grass approximately 70 feet from the body, the police recovered a log bearing traces of blood consistent with the victim's blood type. Nearby, the police later discovered a "no trespassing" sign lying in the water.
Although it was apparent that Pharo's body had been submerged beneath the waters of the Delaware River for some time, the cause of death was not drowning. Instead, the evidence disclosed that the victim had been badly beaten and had died as a result of the injuries inflicted.
The State's two experts differed respecting the precise cause of Pharo's death. Dr. Robert Breckenridge, a board certified pathologist employed by the Salem County Medical Examiner's office, concluded that, despite the numerous injuries inflicted on the victim, it was a single blow by a "rather sharp instrument" that deeply lacerated her scalp and caused a fracture of the base of the skull, followed by "compression" and hemorrhage of the brain, which resulted in her death. The pathologist observed that the "no trespassing" sign, with its sharp edges on two sides, "could very well have been the instrument causing the laceration of the scalp and [the] fracture of the skull." He added that the log and
various rocks found near the victim's body did not have sharp edges and could not have been the instrument that inflicted the fatal blow.
Dr. Ronald Suarez, an Assistant State Medical Examiner, agreed with Dr. Breckenridge that Pharo's body evidenced a skull fracture with "subtentorial hemorrhage[,]" but was "unable to [conclude]" that the blow causing that injury resulted in death. Instead, Dr. Suarez pointed to "a half dozen blows easily identifiable as separate from each other" and concluded that "[t]he accumulation of all the injuries caused [the victim] to die."
Pharo, a 13 year old eighth grade student who resided with her parents and brother, was last seen alive by her mother at approximately 5:30 p.m. on January 17, 1989. Shortly after the victim's body was discovered, the police investigation focused upon the defendant who was then 15 years old and resided in the same apartment complex as the victim. Defendant had confided to a friend, Jose Hernandez, that Pharo was rumored to be pregnant and he the father. On the next day, defendant's mother, in Hernandez's presence, asked defendant to summon Pharo in order to discuss her purported pregnancy. According to Hernandez, while walking to Pharo's apartment, defendant "started breaking down." Defendant told Hernandez that he and Matthew Vincent had killed the victim. Defendant said that "they [had] hit her with a stick" and had left her on the beach. Hernandez accompanied defendant to the river, but they were unable to find Pharo's body due to the rising tide. Defendant exclaimed that he would "probably kill himself" if he were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Defendant and Vincent were apprehended on January 19, 1989. Lieutenant Dennis Sample of the Salem County Prosecutor's office interviewed defendant at the Carneys Point Police Department on that date. Also present were the defendant's mother and several law enforcement officers. Sample advised defendant of his constitutional rights. Both defendant and his mother acknowledged their understanding of ...