On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County.
Approved for Publication December 17, 1996.
Before Judges Havey, Brochin and Eichen. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Brochin, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brochin
The opinion of the Court was delivered by
Defendant Christopher Gorrell was convicted of second and third degree aggravated assault (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1) and -(2)) and third degree possession of a knife for an unlawful purpose (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d)). He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for the second degree offense and to concurrent five-year terms of imprisonment for each of the other two offenses.
Defendant has appealed. He argues that he was denied a fair trial because of the ineffectiveness of his trial counsel who, he asserts, did not understand the applicable hearsay rules; did not effectively cross-examine the State's witnesses or select the appropriate witnesses to present on his behalf; used an incompetent affidavit to support his motion for a new trial and failed to cite pertinent precedents; and, at sentencing, neglected to present evidence of mitigating factors. He also contends that the trial court committed prejudicial error by admitting hearsay testimony, failing to adequately instruct the jury about the precautions applicable to an admission by silence, and failing to provide curative instructions or to voir dire the jury to ascertain possible prejudice after several jurors were inadvertently permitted to see him in handcuffs. Lastly, defendant asserts that the court erred by disregarding mitigating factors which should have reduced his sentence.
Defendant was convicted of assaulting a young man named Bhakti Curtis following a street corner brawl. Curtis was driven to the scene of the assault by a friend who waited for him nearby while the fighting was going on. The friend found Curtis afterwards, lying on his back on the street, bleeding from gaping knife cuts to his chest and arm. The friend drove Curtis to a hospital emergency room where 250 stitches and 60 staples were used to close his wounds.
Curtis testified for the State. He had been drunk during the fighting and, although he knew and was able to name five of the approximately ten to twelve other combatants, he did not know who had stabbed him. Only one of the State's other witnesses had been present during the brawl. That witness testified that he had been only an onlooker and had never been closer than nineteen feet from the fighting. He told the jury that he did not see defendant strike Curtis.
Defendant told the jury that he had not approached Curtis until Curtis was on the ground and the people who had been around him were dispersing. Then, according to defendant, he only looked at Curtis's wounds and walked away. Three of defendant's friends who had been present during the fighting testified on his behalf. They stated that they had not seen him or anyone else stab Curtis.
The knife with which Curtis had been stabbed was never found. There was testimony that defendant used a box-knife in his work that would have been capable of causing wounds like those inflicted on Curtis, but others of those present were said to own similar knives. There was no testimony that defendant had had his box-knife in his possession on the night of the crime. He denied that he had it with him and there was evidence that it had been broken some time earlier.
The State's case depended entirely on two pieces of evidence. The first of these is the testimony of Donnell Graham. He testified that defendant came to his home shortly after the stabbing. His testimony continued as follows:
Q What happened after he came to your home?
A He knocked on my door . . . . And I went downstairs, opened the door, and he said, "We got him." And I asked him "Who?" and he said "Bhakti.
The second piece of evidence on which the State rested its case was developed during its cross-examination of one of the defendant's witnesses, Roneld Scott, and during the presentation of its rebuttal case. Scott testified that, while riding in a car with at least two other persons shortly after Curtis was knifed, he met defendant walking with Donnell Graham and perhaps with one or more ...