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State v. Lawton

February 25, 1997

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WILLIAM LAWTON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Approved for Publication February 27, 1997.

Before Judges Pressler, Humphreys and Wecker. The opinion of the court was delivered by Humphreys, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Humphreys

The opinion of the court was delivered by

HUMPHREYS, J.A.D.

Defendant appeals the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief. He asserts that his 1987 conviction for first degree murder and possession of a handgun should be vacated. He contends:

I.

THE JURY INSTRUCTIONS WERE INHERENTLY CONFUSING, CONTRADICTORY, AND IMPERMISSIBLY SHIFTED THE BURDEN OF PROOF ONTO THE DEFENDANT, RESULTING IN PLAIN ERROR.

A.

Taken In Its Entirety, The Instruction Is Still Inherently Confusing And Contradictory, Even With The Re-Charge.

B.

The Trial Court Impermissibly Shifted the Burden Of Proof Onto The Defendant.

C.

The Flaws In The Jury Instruction And Re-Charge Were Prejudicial, Not Harmless.

II.

THE REVIEWING COURT VIOLATED THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL AND RIGHT TO CONFRONT WITNESSES WHEN IT DETERMINED THAT THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR IN RESTRICTING CROSS EXAMINATION.

III.

THE DOCTRINE OF COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL DOES NOT FORECLOSE POST CONVICTION REVIEW OF THE TRIAL COURT'S FAILURE TO INSTRUCT THE JURY ON THE LESSER INCLUDED OFFENSE OF RECKLESS MANSLAUGHTER.

IV.

THE REVIEWING COURT'S CLAIM THAT ALL OF THE DEFENDANT'S ISSUES SHOULD BE BARRED BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT RAISED ON DIRECT APPEAL IS WITHOUT MERIT.

We asked the defendant to brief the issue of whether he was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel because the alleged flaws in the jury charge were not raised on direct appeal. In response to this request, defendant filed a letter brief in which he contends:

I.

APPELLATE COUNSEL'S FAILURE TO RAISE ON APPEAL THE FLAWS IN THE JURY INSTRUCTIONS AMOUNTED TO INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL, IN VIOLATION OF DEFENDANT'S 6TH AMENDMENT RIGHTS.

A.

The First Prong of the Strickland-Cronic-Fritz Test Can Be Satisfied: Counsel's Performance Was Deficient.

B.

Mr. Lawton Was Prejudiced By His Counsel's Deficient Performance.

1. The Jury Instructions Were Contradictory and Inherently Confusing.

2. In Its Instructions to the Jury, the Trial Court Improperly Shifted the Burden of Proof to the Defendant.

3. The Trial Court Impermissibly Instructed the Jury It Could Not Deliberate on the Manslaughter Charge Until After It First Deliberated the Murder Charge.

We conclude that errors in the charge to the jury caused a fundamental inJustice and a deprivation of constitutional rights. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial on the murder conviction. We do not reach the other issues raised by the defendant.

I

Defendant was beaten in a bar in 1986. He went home, got a handgun, went back to the bar, and shot and killed a person he thought was one of his assailants. Only ten minutes elapsed between the end of the beating and the shooting. The critical issue in the case was whether defendant acted in the heat of passion with ...


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