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State v. McQuaid

February 19, 1997

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ROBERT MCQUAID, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Coleman join in Justice Stein's opinion.

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. Robert McQuaid (A-11-96)

Argued October 8, 1996 -- Decided February 19, 1997

STEIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal addresses the denial of McQuaid's second petition for post-conviction relief ("PCR"), which was filed approximately seven years after his guilty plea to felony murder and theft. McQuaid based his second PCR petition largely on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, alleging that he had pled guilty because of the erroneous advice that, if tried and convicted of the pending charges, he could be subject to the death penalty.

On December 8, 1982, McQuaid and a friend, Lawrence Woodward, burglarized the Barrington, New Jersey home of Beatrice Watson. During the course of the burglary, Woodward shot Watson twice, killing her.

Thereafter, on December 10, 1996, McQuaid and Woodward broke into a home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. When Woodward shouted that the police were outside, the two men separated and fled. McQuaid was apprehended by the police several blocks from the burglarized home.

In December 1982, a grand jury indicted McQuaid on a total of fifteen charges related to the Barrington burglary, including murder by his own conduct; murder as an accomplice by procuring the commission of the homicide by payment of promise of payment; aiding and abetting the murder; felony murder; conspiracy to commit murder, and others. The Camden County Prosecutor filed a Notice of Aggravating Factors, thereby designating McQuaid's prosecution as a death penalty case.

In February 1983, a second grand jury indicted McQuaid on six charges related to the Haddonfield burglary.

After substantial negotiations between McQuaid's attorney and the prosecutor, the State offered McQuaid a plea bargain, which he accepted. Based on the plea agreement, McQuaid entered a guilty plea to one count of felony murder, in exchange for which the State agreed to seek dismissal of the remaining fourteen counts related to the murder indictment and recommend a sentence of forty years imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. In addition, McQuaid pled guilty to one count of theft under the second indictment, in exchange for which the State agreed to seek dismissal of the remaining five counts and to recommend a concurrent ten-year term of imprisonment with a five-year period of parole ineligibility.

During the plea hearing, both McQuaid and his counsel made reference to McQuaid's death eligibility should he be convicted of murder. McQuaid acknowledged that, should he go to trial and be convicted of murder, he could face up to sixty years imprisonment or even the death penalty.

In January 1985, the trial court entered a judgment of conviction and sentenced McQuaid in accordance with the plea agreement. Thereafter, McQuaid appealed his convictions for felony murder and theft, arguing that his plea was involuntarily entered due to ineffective assistance of counsel. He asserted that he entered his guilty plea because defense counsel had failed to "sufficiently explain the probabilities of his receiving other sentences" besides death and, as a result, did not understand the consequences of his plea. He did not contend on direct appeal that he had been misinformed about his eligibility for the death sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed McQuaid's conviction and sentence for felony murder, characterizing the case as "open and shut" and noting that McQuaid had faced "the real possibility of the death penalty or at least a maximum term in excess of the 40 years given here." Thereafter, the Supreme Court denied McQuaid's petition for certification.

In March 1987, McQuaid filed pro se a PCR petition, alleging that his guilty plea to felony murder was not knowing and voluntary. He also alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. He erroneously sought relief only in the form of a reduction of sentence. The trial court denied the application.

In March 1992, McQuaid, represented by counsel, filed a second PCR petition, alleging for the first time that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at the plea hearing because he had been misadvised concerning his death eligibility. The trial court denied the petition, finding that McQuaid had previously raised that claim before the Appellate Division on direct appeal and that the petition was time-barred because it was filed more than five years after the date of the judgment of conviction.

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the PCR petition, finding that it was time-barred under Rule 3:22-12. Nevertheless, the panel considered McQuaid's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel argument that he was not death eligible because he did not kill the victim by "his own conduct." The panel found the argument flawed because it relied on case law decided after McQuaid's plea.

In May 1995, the Supreme Court granted McQuaid's petition for certification and summarily remanded the matter to the Appellate Division for reconsideration. In its order, the Supreme Court noted that the Appellate Division erroneously assumed that death-eligibility under the "own conduct" requirement of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c (the death penalty statute) was not established until the Court decided State v. Gerald, 113 N.J. 40, 549 A.2d 792 (1988).

On remand, the Appellate Division reaffirmed its prior decision affirming the trial court's denial of defendant's PCR petition, explaining that its previous denial was not premised solely on whether McQuaid was death-eligible. Rather, the panel had also held that McQuaid's petition was time-barred.

The Supreme Court granted McQuaid's petition for certification.

HELD: Although McQuaid was misinformed concerning his death-eligibility, he has not demonstrated that the misinformation materially and prejudicially influenced his decision to plead guilty to felony murder and has not sustained his burden of showing that to allow his guilty plea to stand would result in a manifest inJustice.

1. While the imputation of liability for the conduct of another suffices for a murder conviction, the defendant's "own conduct" in the commission of the murder is a prerequisite to imposition of the death penalty. (pp. 13-17)

2. A death-eligible accomplice must do more than solicit or merely urge another to commit murder. Rather, the legislative history of the death penalty statute demonstrates the Legislature's intent to restrict the scope of the murder-for-hire provision to an accomplice who kills a victim by inducing another, with payment or the promise of pecuniary gain, to commit the murder. (pp. 18-20)

3. A defendant ordinarily must pursue relief by direct appeal and may not use post-conviction relief to assert a new claim that could have been raised on direct appeal or to relitigate claims already decided on the merits. (pp. 21-22)

4. Exceptions to the procedural bars to PCR petitions have been generously interpreted to ensure fundamental fairness. Because ineffective assistance of counsel claims are grounded in the Constitution and because they often cannot reasonably be raised on direct appeal or in prior proceedings, such claims may often fall within those exceptions. (pp. 22-23)

5. A prior adjudication on the merits ordinarily constitutes a procedural bar to the reassertion of the same ground as a basis for post-conviction relief. (pp. 23-24)

6. In determining whether to relax the time bar to the filing of a PCR petition, a court should consider the extent and cause of the delay, the prejudice to the State, and the importance of the petitioner's claim in determining whether there has been an inJustice sufficient to relax the time limits. (pp. 24-27)

7. Misinformation provided to a defendant that is not material to the decision to plead guilty does not render a plea involuntary. Rather, what is crucial is that the plea bargain has been fairly reached and that defendant's reasonable expectations drawn from the terms of the bargain have been fulfilled. (pp. 27-29)

8. If misinformation does materially influence a defendant's decision to plead guilty, he will be allowed to withdraw the plea if, as a result, he suffers prejudice. (pp. 29-30)

9. Defendants should not pay the exacting price for state procedural forfeitures that result from the ignorance or inadvertence of their counsel -- regardless of whether counsel's error violates constitutional standards. (pp.36-37)

10. In weighing the policy considerations in favor of finality of judicial proceedings against the alleged prejudice to the defendant, McQuaid has failed to demonstrate prejudice that is sufficient to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. (pp.37-42)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN'S opinion.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

STEIN, J.

This appeal addresses the denial of defendant's second petition for post-conviction relief ("PCR") filed approximately seven years after his guilty plea to felony murder and theft. Defendant, Robert McQuaid, based his second PCR petition largely on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, alleging that he had pled guilty because of the erroneous advice that if tried and convicted of the pending charges he could be subject to the death penalty. The Appellate Division upheld the trial court's denial of PCR based on the procedural bar of Rule 3:22-5, which deems conclusive a prior adjudication on the merits of any grounds for relief asserted.

I

We base our recitation of the pertinent facts primarily on defendant's admissions at his plea hearing and during a confession made several days following the murder. On December 8, 1982, defendant and a friend, Lawrence Woodward, sought to burglarize the Barrington, New Jersey home of Beatrice Watson. Defendant knew Watson from previous odd-jobs he had performed for her. For several weeks, the two men had watched the house in order to determine an appropriate time for the burglary. On the day of the crime defendant and co-defendant Woodward believed that the home would be unoccupied. Defendant approached the back door of the house and knocked. Unexpectedly, Watson answered the door. Defendant showed her a knife and told her to let him in, informing her that she should say nothing and would not be hurt. He backed her into the living room where he told her to lie face down on the couch. Woodward entered the house and defendant told him to find some tape and tie-up the victim. After Woodward tied the victim with surgical tape, the two men ransacked the house.

While looking through bedroom drawers, defendant found a .38 caliber revolver. Defendant gave the gun to Woodward. The two men discussed whether to kill the victim in order to prevent her from identifying them. A pillow was placed over the victim's head. Woodward shot the victim twice after defendant said he could not shoot her. Following the shooting, the two men fled the scene with a pillowcase containing the few valuable items they had found. They drove to Philadelphia and stayed for two days. Defendant sold the items taken from the Watson home at a Coin Exchange store for approximately $200, and sold the gun for drugs. Defendant gave Woodward $80 to $100 as his share of the burglary proceeds. While in Philadelphia they also visited defendant's uncle.

On December 10, 1982, defendant and Woodward drove to New Jersey to return the car used during the burglary, which they had borrowed from a friend. At the friend's home, they spoke with Gary Cumens. Cumens had just read an article in a newspaper about the killing of Beatrice Watson, and knew that defendant had previously worked for her. Cumens asked defendant about the killing and defendant admitted that they had committed the burglary and had killed the victim.

Later that day, defendant and Woodward broke into a Haddonfield home. Defendant cut through a screen and broke the glass in the back door. Defendant searched the house and found an unloaded single barrel shotgun in a closet. When Woodward shouted that the police were outside, the two men separated and fled. Defendant escaped from the home through a basement window, carrying a pillowcase containing stolen goods. While running, he dropped the pillowcase. Defendant was apprehended by the police several blocks from the burglarized home.

On December 17, 1982, both defendant and Woodward made sworn statements to the police regarding the burglaries and the murder of Beatrice Watson. The two statements were consistent in detailing how they had planned the Watson burglary for several weeks before committing the crime. Both men stated that they went to a supermarket to procure gloves and a knife just before driving to the Watson house. Their statements differed somewhat regarding the decision to kill the victim. Woodward claimed defendant told him to kill the victim because she could identify defendant. He stated that defendant emphasized that he did not want to return to jail because he knew he would receive a long sentence. Woodward also claimed that defendant gave him the pillow and told him to shoot the victim through the pillow in order to muffle the sound. Defendant stated that they had previously discussed killing the victim, if necessary. Defendant claimed that, while defendant was in a different room, Woodward threatened and then killed the victim after defendant gave him the gun.

Other evidence acquired by the police included a sworn statement by Gary Cumens, which indicated that two days before the killing he had driven past the victim's home with the two defendants and heard them discuss their plan to burglarize the home. Cumens reported that defendant later admitted to him that he and Woodward had killed the victim. Cumens also stated that defendant informed him that defendant had told Woodward to go ahead and kill her while he went into another room.

The police went to the Philadelphia store where defendant had sold the items stolen from the victim's home. With the signed receipt retained by defendant, police detectives recovered the stolen items, including a silverware set engraved with the initial "W". Additionally, the police recovered the gun registered to the victim. The police spoke with defendant's uncle who confirmed the presence of the two men in Philadelphia during the two days following the murder. The uncle stated that defendant and his friend stayed overnight in a small silver car, which matched the description of the car defendant admitted to borrowing on the day of the murder. The police also located a witness who, on the day of the killing, saw the car used by defendant parked around the corner from the victim's home.

In December 1982, a grand jury indicted defendant on a total of fifteen charges. Those charges were: murder by his own conduct, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1) -3a(2), -3c (count one); murder as an accomplice by procuring the commission of the homicide by payment or promise of payment of anything of pecuniary value, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c (count two); aiding and abetting the murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1, 11-3c (counts three and four); felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(3), -3c (count five); conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count six); first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1b (count seven); second-degree burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2b (count eight); conspiracy to commit robbery and/or burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count nine); hindering apprehension or prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3a(3) (counts ten, eleven, and twelve); possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a, -4d (counts thirteen and fourteen); and possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b (count fifteen).

The Camden County Prosecutor filed a Notice of Aggravating Factors, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(2)(e) and Rule 3:13-4(a), thereby designating defendant's prosecution as a death penalty case. The enumerated factors were: (1) the murder was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(c); (2) the murder was committed for the purpose of escaping detection, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(f); (3) the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of a robbery and/or burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(g); and (4) the defendant procured the commission of the murder by payment or promise of payment, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3c(4)(e).

In February 1983, a second grand jury indicted defendant on six charges related to the Haddonfield burglary. Those charges were: fourth degree aggravated assault -- by pointing a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4)(count one); second-degree burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2 (count two); third-degree theft by unlawful taking or Disposition, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3 (count three); second degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4 (count four); third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon (shotgun), N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(c)(1) (count five); and conspiracy to commit burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (count six).

Defense counsel represented defendant for close to a year and a half. At the plea hearing, counsel noted that he had had numerous conferences with defendant discussing the potential consequences of both a guilty plea and a conviction after trial. He acknowledged that defendant was charged with a capital crime and faced the possibility of a death sentence. In the course of a colloquy with the court, he expressed the view that defendant, if convicted on all charges, faced a potential sentence of life with sixty years parole ineligibility.

After substantial negotiations between defense counsel and the prosecutor, the State offered defendant a plea bargain. Defendant accepted. Based on the plea agreement, defendant entered a retraxit guilty plea to one count of felony murder. In exchange, the State agreed to seek dismissal of the remaining fourteen counts related to the murder indictment and recommend a sentence of forty years imprisonment with thirty years of parole ineligibility. Additionally, defendant pled guilty to one count of theft under the second indictment. The State also agreed to seek dismissal of the remaining five counts and to recommend a concurrent ten-year term of imprisonment with a five-year period of parole ineligibility.

During the plea hearing, defendant, defense counsel and the trial court made reference to defendant's death eligibility. On four separate occasions defendant stated that it was his understanding that if he were to plead not guilty and stand trial on the charges against him he might be convicted of murder and receive the death penalty. The trial court questioned defendant to ensure that he understood the penalties for theft and murder. When asked if he understood the maximum penalty to which he would be subject if convicted, defendant stated, "I get the death penalty."

At the plea hearing, defendant expressed dissatisfaction with his legal representation. The trial court closely questioned defendant to determine the basis for his concern. The trial court indicated it could not accept the plea bargain if defendant had not received adequate legal counsel. After taking a short break, defendant stated that he had received adequate counsel and wanted to plead guilty, explaining that the concerns he had expressed previously reflected his unhappiness with the legal predicament facing him.

Defendant apparently agreed to the plea bargain because he perceived the evidence against him to be overwhelming. Defendant stated:

It's just that, you know, I don't know. I look at my case. I got a stack of evidence against me this high. So to say I have even a near win, you know what I mean, or almost would be wrong. So it's like, you know, the deal's good. You know what I mean?

It's not like I'm -- I mean I'm weighing out a lot, you know what I mean? If I take it to trial -- 30 years at least there's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel versus 60 years or death ...


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