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State v. Roach

August 7, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WINSTON ROACH, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Justices Pollock, O'hern and Stein join in Justice HANDLER's opinion. Justice Coleman filed a separate opinion Dissenting in part and Concurring in part in which Justice Garibaldi joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler

(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. WINSTON ROACH (A-112-95)

Argued February 13, 1996 -- Decided August 7, 1996

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

This case stems from the gas station robbery and murder of two people in Newark, N.J. Five individuals were charged with these crimes, including Winston Roach. The evidence of the roles and conduct of the defendants in the commission of the charged crimes was conflicting. The four defendants were tried in separate proceedings by the same prosecutor. The issues presented are whether a prosecutor's use of conflicting theories in separate criminal proceedings violates the rights of a defendant to a fair trial; and whether the disparity between the sentences of similar co-defendants convicted of the same offenses violates the sentencing guidelines for uniformity.

Roach was indicted on eleven counts of conspiracy to commit robbery, armed robbery, purposeful and knowing murder, felony murder, unlawful possession of handguns without a permit, and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes. The other individuals indicted for these crimes were Billy Jackson, Lawrence Wright, and Kevin Oglesby. The police obtained conflicting information regarding Roach's participation in the crime. On July 24, 1991, Roach was questioned by Investigator Carrega of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and a detective from the Newark Police. Roach denied any knowledge of the murders and refused to make a statement. However, on August 16, 1991, Roach was questioned again. After waiving his Miranda rights, he confessed that he was involved in the robbery but only as a look-out.

At the Conclusion of trial, the court charged the jury both on accomplice liability and the theory that Roach might have been a principal. Roach was convicted of all counts except murder. At sentencing, the trial court merged all the convictions into the felony murder convictions. It imposed two consecutive life sentences with a thirty-year parole disqualifier on each term. Roach's total sentence was life with a sixty-year period of parole ineligibility.

The Appellate Division affirmed Roach's convictions and sentence and the Supreme Court granted Roach's petition for certification.

On appeal, Roach contends that the prosecutor falsely and unfairly argued to the jury that he was a principal in a commission of the crimes and, further, presented factually inconsistent positions in the separate criminal prosecutions of the other co-defendants. Roach asserts that the presentation of false arguments tainted the jury's deliberations and, by relying on inconsistent positions in separate criminal proceedings involving the identical crimes and participants, the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct that requires the reversal of his convictions.

HELD:

The prosecutor's use of conflicting theories regarding the commission of the crimes in separate criminal proceedings against the co-defendants did not violate Winston Roach's right to a fair trial. Moreover, the record in this case does not present an acceptable justification of the disparity in Roach's sentence in light of the sentence imposed on his co-defendant.

1. To justify reversal of a criminal conviction, the prosecutor's conduct must be so egregious that it deprived defendant of a fair trial. Here, the prosecutor's summation reasonably suggested that Roach could have been either the look-out or the shooter. Nothing in the record indicates that false or baseless accusations were made against Roach by the prosecutor. Therefore, the State's argument included reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence. (pp. 6-7)

2. The prosecutor properly presented different, plausible interpretations of the conflicting evidence. The evidence supported the differing inferences about Roach's role in the crimes. Although the prosecutor's arguments presented to Roach's jury were inconsistent with the arguments made at the trials of the co-defendants, the jurors were clearly exposed to evidence that permitted different inferences concerning a basis for Roach's criminal guilt, including versions that were consistent with the prosecutions of the other co-defendants, namely, that Roach was or may have been a look-out. Moreover, the jury was repeatedly instructed to render a verdict based on the evidence and not on the remarks of the attorneys. Thus, the actions by the prosecutor as a whole did not violate fundamental fairness and were no so egregious that reversal of the convictions would be warranted. (pp. 8-11)

3. Given the reasonable inference to be drawn from the evidence of both accomplice and principal liability, the trial court properly charged the jury on both theories. A reasonable jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Roach was either a shooter or a look-out. (p. 12)

4. Detective Carrega's testimony in respect of statements from co-defendants, as it was presented, "irresistibly" implicated Roach. Nonetheless, Roach's confession created in itself an inescapable inference that he was a criminal actor, either as an accomplice or, as a principal. The jury could have based its findings of guilt on Roach's statement without any resort to or reliance on the hearsay testimony. Therefore, the error does not require reversal of Roach's conviction. (pp. 13-16)

5. Nothing in the record supports a Conclusion that Roach's statement was involuntarily made. The trial court's determinations of voluntariness of a Miranda waiver were amply supported by the record. Moreover, the trial court determined that the proofs were sufficient to constitute a jury question about whether Roach's confession was trustworthy. The trial court's instructions clearly advised the jury that it must decide the issues of fact regarding the value of Roach's statement confession. The jury, in weighing the credibility of the statement, must have considered the independent corroborative facts that were submitted by the State. Thus, the evidence and inferences to be drawn from that evidence were sufficient for the jury to determine that the confession was trustworthy. The trial court's failure, therefore, specifically to charge the jury that it must find corroboration was not harmful error. (pp. 16-20)

6. The trial court's findings of the aggravating and mitigating factors were amply supported by the record; the trial court gave extensive reasons for its sentencing decision; and the court followed proper procedures and standards in imposing consecutive, not concurrent, sentences. Thus, the sentences imposed on Roach conformed to all sentencing guidelines and do not reflect any abuse of discretion. (pp. 20-23)

7. Uniformity is one of the major goals in sentencing and disparity may invalidate an otherwise sound and lawful sentence. The record strongly indicates that dissimilar sentences were imposed on similar defendants. The disparity between the sentences is not minimal; Roach received thirty additional years in prison. Therefore, there should be a remand to determine whether the disparity is justifiable. The record does not present an acceptable justification of Roach's sentence in light of the sentence imposed on his co-defendant. A sentencing court must exercise a broader discretion to obviate excessive disparity. The trial court must determine whether the co-defendant is identical or substantially similar to the defendant in respect of all relevant sentencing criteria. The court should then inquire into the basis of the sentences imposed on the other defendant. It should further consider the length, terms, and conditions of the sentence imposed on the co-defendant. If the co-defendant is sufficiently similar, the court must give the sentence imposed on the co-defendant substantive weight when sentencing the defendant in order to avoid excessive disparity. Sentencing based on such added considerations will accommodate the basic discretion of a sentencing court to impose a just sentence on the individual defendant in accordance with the sentencing guidelines while fulfilling the court's responsibility to achieve uniform sentencing when possible. (pp. 23-27)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED in part and REVERSED in part.

JUSTICE COLEMAN, Concurring in part and Dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE GARIBALDI joins, concurs in the decision to affirm Roach's conviction but Dissents from the majority's Conclusion that there should be remand to determine whether Roach's sentence is unjustifiably disparate when compared with that of co-defendant Jackson. Justice Coleman disagrees that a reviewing court, in the name of correcting sentencing disparity, should reduce one co-defendant's sentence, though that sentence complied with all appropriate sentencing guidelines, to make it consistent with another co-defendant's lesser sentence, which the trial court believes was erroneously imposed. According to Justice Coleman, the sentences are not unjustifiably disparate as a matter of law because Roach's sentence is not excessive; therefore, there is no basis for a remand. Nonetheless, even where unjustifiable disparity is found to exist, the better way to correct it is through the court's supervisory power, rather than its adjudicatory power, on a case-by-case basis.

JUSTICES POLLOCK, O'HERN and STEIN join in JUSTICE HANDLER's opinion. JUSTICE COLEMAN filed a separate opinion Dissenting in part and Concurring in part in which JUSTICE GARIBALDI joins.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

HANDLER, J.

This case stems from the gas station robbery and murder of two people in Newark, New Jersey. Five individuals were charged with these crimes. The evidence of the roles and conduct of the defendants in the commission of the charged crimes was conflicting. Four defendants were eventually tried in separate proceedings by the same prosecutor.

The defendant in this case was convicted by a jury of felony murders, aggravated manslaughters, armed robberies, conspiracy, and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms with periods of parole ineligibility aggregating sixty years. Another defendant was tried before and sentenced by a different Judge. He received concurrent life terms with parole ineligibility of thirty years.

Among the important issues this case presents are: (1) whether a prosecutor's use of conflicting theories in separate criminal proceedings violates the rights of a defendant to a fair trial; and (2) whether the disparity between the sentences of similar co-defendants convicted of the same offenses violates the sentencing guidelines for uniformity.

I

The defendant, Winston Roach, was indicted on eleven counts of conspiracy to commit robbery (second degree), armed robbery (first degree), purposeful and knowing murder, felony murder, unlawful possession of handguns without a permit, and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes (second degree). The other individuals indicted for these crimes were Billy Jackson, Lawrence Wright, and Kelvin Oglesby. Gregory Tucker was also indicted but the charges against him were later dismissed.

According to the State, on the evening of May 30, 1991, at approximately 10:15 P.M., Jose Lavoura and Carlos Suarez were preparing to close the Sunoco Gas station where they worked in Newark. At the same time, Tracy Gilliam drove into the station to buy gas and waited in his car for an attendant. He noticed that two African-American men were inside the station talking to two Latino men. About ten minutes later, Gilliam heard gunshots. Frightened, Gilliam immediately left the station. As he drove away, Gilliam "glanced back through his mirror" and saw "two [African-American] individuals running out" with Suarez running after them. Gilliam was unable to identify the two African-American individuals.

Milton Shackleford and Charles Green also heard the gunshots. Both were in a store across the street from the gas station. After hearing the shots, they went outside and saw Suarez and two African-American men running away. He also recognized co-defendant Lawrence Wright as one of the African-American men. According to Shackleford, the two African-American men got into a yellow and brown Cutlass Supreme automobile car that was parked on the corner of Lyons and Wainwright Streets. Suarez died from gunshot wounds.

When the Newark police arrived sometime between 11:00 and 11:30 P.M., they found Lavoura dead from a gunshot wound. There was $240 in Lavoura's pockets and $52 on top of a small desk. Between $1300 and $1400 was missing from the receipts. There were bullet fragments and live rounds from .22 and .25 caliber weapons in the office. Forensic reports showed that Lavoura died from .22 caliber gunshot wounds and Suarez died from .22 and .25 caliber gunshot wounds. There were no bullet fragments found outside the station office or on the street.

On June 25, 1991, Lawrence Wright surrendered to the Newark police and was arrested. Police identified three other suspects: Winston ...


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