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State v. Knight

July 11, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT AND CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
CURTIS KNIGHT, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 283 N.J. Super. 98 (1995).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Justices Handler, Pollock and O'hern join in Justice STEIN's opinion. Justice Coleman filed a Dissenting and Concurring opinion in which Justice Garibaldi joins. Chief Justice Wilentz did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

STATE OF NEW JERSEY V. CURTIS KNIGHT (A-118/119-95)

(NOTE: This is a companion case to State of New Jersey v. Louis Abronski also decided today.)

Argued March 25, 1996 -- Decided July 11, 1996

STEIN, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

In March 1990, Curtis Knight was tried along with a co-defendant for the murder of Glenn Brown. The State contended that Knight beat Brown to death with a pipe. The State's case against Knight relied heavily on the testimony of Marie Robinson, who claimed to have witnessed the beating on the morning of September 12, 1988. The State's case also included evidence seized from Knight when he was arrested in California. Knight was indicted for the murder of Brown on December 8, 1988. However, because he had moved to California in October of 1988, he was able to elude New Jersey law enforcement authorities. On October 25, 1989, FBI Agent Mark Wilson and local police officers located and apprehended Knight in Palmdale, California. Officers searched the car Knight was driving at the time of his arrest and found a pipe on the floor beneath the front passenger's seat. The State argued at trial that the pipe was the weapon used to kill Brown.

The trial court also admitted into evidence a statement that Knight allegedly made to FBI Agent Wilson following his arrest. According to Wilson, Knight waived his Miranda rights and stated that he had been robbed by Brown and that he left New Jersey in fear for his life. Although Knight's explanation was not directly inculpatory, at trial the State used his story to connect him to Brown and to argue that he killed Brown in revenge.

Knight was convicted of first-degree murder, fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility.

On appeal, Knight raised nine points of error. Without reaching the merits of any of those contentions, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for the creation of a record in respect of Knight's allegation that the State had improperly suppressed exculpatory evidence. On remand, Knight pointed to four areas in which the State had failed to provide exculpatory evidence to him. First, Knight noted that Marie Robinson had pled guilty to possession of cocaine shortly before Brown's death in exchange for a recommended jail term of up to 364 days. At her sentencing hearing, a representative of the prosecutor's office informed the sentencing Judge that Robinson had cooperated with the State in the Brown murder investigation. Robinson was subsequently sentenced to two days time served plus a small fine. According to Knight, had he been informed of the prosecutor's favorable comments and their apparent effect on Robinson's sentence, he would have impeached her testimony by showing that she had fabricated her story to obtain a favorable sentence.

The second alleged non-disclosure involved statements made by Hakima, a woman who, according to Marie Robinson, talked with Robinson shortly before the attack on Brown. The State's witness list included the incorrect name and address of Hakima, who was identified incorrectly as Kim Royal. The State failed to inform Knight that it had discovered that the woman's correct name was Kim Loyal. The State also failed to disclose that Loyal had told State investigators that she was near the scene of the crime around the time of the attack on Brown but did not see either Knight or Robinson there.

The third non-disclosure concerns an FBI teletype sent to FBI Agent Wilson on September 27, 1989 informing him of the facts underlying the charges against Knight. Wilson had testified at trial that he was unaware of that information when questioning Knight. Knight argues that the teletype would have been used to impeach Wilson's credibility.

Finally, the fourth non-disclosure concerns statements from one of the State's witnesses, Terrence Worthy, who had informed law enforcement authorities in July 1988 that Brown had been involved in a murder. Knight claimed that he could have used that information to argue to the jury that Worthy had a motive to kill Brown.

The trial court ruled that these non-disclosures did not require the reversal of Knight's convictions because they were not material and would not have affected the result of the trial. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed Knight's convictions, finding that the prosecutor's failure to disclose exculpatory information to Knight violated federal constitutional law. The court concluded that the Robinson sentencing information and the statements made by Loyal and Worthy to prosecutor's office representatives were exculpatory and material to the issue of Knight's guilt. The Appellate Division also based its reversal on the fact that the admission into evidence of Knight's statement to FBI Agent Wilson violated Knight's State constitutional right to counsel as construed in State v. Sanchez. In Sanchez, this Court held that the mere recitation of the Miranda warnings does not provide an indicted defendant with information sufficient to make a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel. The Appellate Division concluded that because Knight had been indicted by the time of FBI Agent Wilson's interrogation, the uncounseled waiver of his Miranda rights did not constitute a valid waiver of his State constitutional right to counsel and was, therefore, inadmissible. The court, acknowledging that Sanchez was decided after Knight's trial had concluded, held that Sanchez should be applied retroactively to this case.

The Supreme Court granted certification.

HELD:

State v. Sanchez applies retroactively to this case. The admission into evidence of Knight's statement to his arresting officer violated his state constitutional right to counsel as construed in Sanchez. In addition, the prosecutor's failure to disclose certain exculpatory information to Knight violated federal constitutional law.

1. Under the Brady rule, suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused on request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, regardless of the good or bad faith of the prosecution. Courts are obligated to consider the State's non-disclosures collectively, not item-by-item. Regardless of the specificity of a defendant's request, evidence is material for Brady purposes if there is a reasonable probability that had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceedings would have been different. (pp. 12-14)

2. The State violated the Brady rule by withholding evidence favorable to Knight and material to the issue of guilt. Disclosure of the FBI teletype and the statements made by Terrence Worthy would have had minimal impact on Knight's trial. Nevertheless, based on the combined impact of the Loyal statement and the Robinson sentencing information, there is a reasonable probability that the result of Knight's trial would have been different had the suppressed evidence been disclosed to the defense. Thus, the Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires the reversal of Knight's convictions. (pp. 12-16)

3. There are four options in determining retroactive application of a new rule of criminal procedure. Among those options is "pipeline retroactivity," which renders the new rule of law applicable in all future cases, in cases in which the rule is announced, and cases still on direct appeal. If a decision sets forth a new rule, three factors are generally considered to determine whether the rule is to be applied retroactively: 1) the purpose of the rule and whether it would be furthered by a retroactive application; 2) the degree of lines placed on the old rule by those who administered it; and 3) the effect a retroactive application would have on the administration of Justice. (pp. 17-24)

4. The Sanchez rule is sufficiently novel and unanticipated to implicate this Court's power to limit the retroactive effect of its decisions. Based on the three retroactivity factors, the Sanchez rule should apply here. Neither the purpose of the Sanchez rule, reliance on pre-Sanchez law, nor administration-of-Justice considerations justify limiting application of the Sanchez rule in cases arising after that decision was announced. However, administration-of-Justice considerations counsel against affording Sanchez more than pipeline retroactivity. Sanchez will, therefore, not apply to those defendants who had exhausted all avenues of direct relief at the time Sanchez was decided. (pp. 24-31)

5. The State contends that even if Sanchez applies to this case, it does not render inadmissible Knight's statement to FBI Agent Wilson because he was not acting on behalf of the State but rather as an agent of the Federal Government. The record contains information sufficient to conclude that Agent Wilson was acting as an agent of the prosecutor's office when he interrogated Knight. Accordingly, Knight's statement is inadmissible pursuant to Sanchez. (pp. 31-35)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE COLEMAN, Concurring in part and Dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE GARIBALDI joins, Dissents only from that part of the Court's holding that State v. Sanchez should be afforded pipeline retroactivity. Because there was justifiable reliance by the law enforcement community on federal constitutional law prevailing at the time Knight was interrogated by FBI Agent Wilson, the Sanchez rule should apply only to cases in which the Miranda warnings were given to indicted defendants after July 23, 1992, the date Sanchez was decided.

JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK and O'HERN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion. JUSTICE COLEMAN filed a Dissenting and Concurring opinion in which JUSTICE GARIBALDI joins. CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ did not participate.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by STEIN, J.

After a jury trial, defendant, Curtis Knight, was convicted of first-degree murder, third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. The Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions on two grounds: 1) the prosecutor's failure to disclose certain exculpatory information to defendant violated federal constitutional law; and 2) the admission into evidence of defendant's statement to his arresting officer violated defendant's state constitutional right to counsel as construed in State v. Sanchez, 129 N.J. 261, 609 A.2d 400 (1992). See State v. Knight, 283 N.J. Super. 98, 119, 661 A.2d 298 (App. Div. 1995).

In Sanchez, (supra) , we held that mere recitation of the Miranda warnings does not provide an indicted defendant with information sufficient to make a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel. 129 N.J. at 276. Recognizing that Sanchez was decided after Knight's trial had concluded, the Appellate Division nevertheless determined that the Sanchez rule applies retroactively and requires the reversal of Knight's convictions. Knight, (supra) , 283 N.J. Super. at 112-14.

We granted the State's petition for certification, 142 N.J. 575 (1995), and defendant's cross-petition, ibid., primarily to review the Appellate Division's Conclusion that the Sanchez rule should be afforded retrospective application. We affirm.

I

In March 1990, defendant was tried along with Cesar Glenn for the murder of Glenn Brown, who was also known as Hassan. The State contended that Cesar Glenn held Brown while defendant beat him to death with a pipe.

The State's case against defendant relied heavily on the testimony of Marie Robinson, who claimed to have witnessed the beating. Robinson testified that on the morning of September 12, 1988, she was talking with friends in front of an apartment building located at 254 Prince Street in Newark. When asked to name those friends, Robinson mentioned a woman known as Hakima and a woman known as Ms. Mohamid. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., Robinson walked inside the apartment building and saw her friend, Glenn Brown, sleeping on the hallway staircase. Robinson woke Brown and told him to go home. Brown explained that he was high, had not slept in four days, and could not go home because someone "was looking for him." Robinson left Brown and rejoined her friends in the front of the building.

According to Robinson, a few minutes later two men who Robinson could not identify entered the hallway of the building from the back door. They were followed by defendant. After finding Brown on the hallway staircase, each of the two unidentified men took one of Brown's arms and dragged him out of the back of the building. Robinson explained that Brown could barely stand up on his own, and remained limp as he was brought out the back door. Robinson moved into the hallway of the building to get a better view of what was happening, and saw the two men hold Brown while defendant hit him in the head with a pipe three or four times. Gun shots were fired, Brown fell to the ground, and the three assailants fled the scene. A state medical examiner corroborated Robinson's story by testifying that Brown's injuries were caused by blunt-force trauma to the head, and that the injuries could have been inflicted by someone wielding a pipe.

Defense counsel vigorously attacked Robinson's credibility. Counsel noted that Robinson's trial testimony was inconsistent with prior statements she had given to the police. Robinson's story had changed regarding where the attack took place, whether anyone else had witnessed the attack, and how much of the attack Robinson herself had observed. Robinson admitted to having previously lied to the police when she told them that she did not know the names of any of the other persons standing in front of the apartment building when the beating took place. She also conceded that she did not contact the police to inform them of what she had witnessed until eleven days after the killing, when she told her story to her probation officer. At that time Robinson was awaiting sentencing on a possession-of-cocaine charge to which she had pled guilty. However, Robinson emphasized at trial that she had received no benefit as a result of her testimony.

Another aspect of the State's case against defendant concerned a baseball hat found at the crime scene that contained the logo "Pepsi-Cola Teterboro." The State contended that the hat belonged to defendant. Although the State did not offer the hat into evidence, it did offer a picture taken of the crime scene that depicted the hat lying on the ground. A Pepsi employee testified that defendant worked at Pepsi's Teterboro plant in 1985 and 1986, when such ...


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