On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in this opinion.
(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. Ellen Gartland (A-80-96)
Argued January 21, 1997 -- Decided June 19, 1997
Ellen Gartland was convicted of reckless manslaughter for killing her husband in a bedroom of their home. In this criminal appeal, the Court addresses several issues: (1) whether the death of Ellen Gartland following the filing of her petition for certification renders her appeal moot; (2) whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury that Ellen Gartland had a duty to retreat from her separate bedroom before using deadly force; and (3) whether the trial court should have specifically instructed the jury that it could consider the history of spousal abuse to determine the reasonableness of Ellen Gartland's belief that deadly force was necessary to protect herself against death or serious bodily injury.
Ellen Gartland had been the victim of long-standing physical and emotional abuse by her husband, John Gartland, the victim. On February 8, 1993, the two became involved in an argument in their home, during the course of which neighbors heard John threaten Ellen. At some point during the argument, Ellen left the room and went upstairs to her bedroom. The two had occupied separate bedrooms for over ten years. On previous occasions, John had left Ellen alone in this room. On this occasion, however, he followed her into the bedroom. Although Ellen told John to leave her alone, he approached her, threatening to strike her. Ellen took her son's hunting shotgun from her bedroom closet and pointed it at John, telling him to stop. John then threatened to kill her and lunged at her with his fists clenched. Ellen pulled the trigger and John stepped into the hallway and fell. He ultimately died from the gunshot.
Immediately following the shooting, Ellen telephoned the operator, and asked for an ambulance, advising that she had just shot her husband. She also told the responding officers that, when she shot her husband, she had feared for her life.
At trial, the jury had twice asked for clarification of the court's charge on self-defense. On both occasions, the trial court repeated its initial instructions using the Model Jury Charge, which never specifically apprised the jury that it could consider the seventeen years of spousal abuse suffered by Ellen in determining whether she honestly and reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to protect herself against her husband.
Prior to the charge, defense counsel objected to the court's intent to charge that Ellen had a duty to retreat before resorting to deadly force, arguing that, because Ellen had been in her own room, which her husband had never before occupied, he was not a cohabitant and under the law Ellen had no duty to retreat from her own separate dwelling. The trial court again used the Model Jury Charge in its instruction.
The jury convicted Ellen Gartland of reckless manslaughter and she was sentenced to a five-year term with a mandatory three-years imprisonment under the Graves Act. She was freed on bail pending appeal.
The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, finding that the trial court had correctly charged the jury on the statutory duty to retreat before the use of deadly force. The Appellate Division further found that the jury instructions had made it clear that the court was not limiting the jury to the actions and words John Gartland on the date of the shooting, and that the trial court had given the jury sufficient latitude to consider John's prior mistreatment and physical and psychological abuse of Ellen.
Ellen Gartland died after she filed a petition for certification. The Supreme Court subsequently granted her petition for certification and reserved decision on the State's motion to dismiss the appeal.
HELD: Even though this case may be rendered moot by Ellen Gartland's death, the issues presented are of significant public importance and are likely to recur, thus justifying their further consideration; although the trial court did not commit error in charging the jury that Ellen Gartland had a duty to retreat from her bedroom before resorting to deadly force or in omitting from its instruction a specific charge that the jury could consider the history of spousal abuse in assessing the reasonableness of Ellen Gartland's belief that deadly force was necessary to protect herself, the trial court's failure to specifically tailor the Model Jury Charges to the particular circumstances of this case could only serve to confuse the jury.
1. Although our courts will entertain a case that has become moot when the issue is of significant public importance and is likely to recur, the power to review a criminal appeal of a dead defendant is rarely exercised. (pp. 5-9)
2. New Jersey is among the minority of jurisdictions that impose a duty of retreat on a woman attacked by her cohabitant spouse. (pp. 10-12)
3. Although the Code of Criminal Justice requires a cohabitant who can safely leave the home to avoid violence before resorting to deadly force, the Court invites the Legislature to reconsider the application of the retreat doctrine in the case of a spouse battered in her own home. (pp. 12-16)
4. The upstairs bedroom in which Ellen Gartland slept did not constitute a separate dwelling under the Code of Criminal Justice, and she was thus not absolved of her duty to retreat before resorting to deadly force. (pp. 16-18)
5. Although a better charge would have specifically instructed the jury to consider the history of prior abuse in assessing the honesty and reasonableness of Ellen's belief in the need to use deadly force, the instruction, taken as a whole, could not be understood to foreclose the jury's full and appropriate consideration of the prior abuse in assessing the honesty and reasonableness of her belief. (pp. 18-22)
6. Courts must give content to statutory language in their charges to juries and an abstract charge on the duty to retreat could only have been confusing in the circumstances of this case. (pp. 22-24)
7. The trial court's charge on self-defense should also have been tailored to the circumstances of this case. (pp. 24-25)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the conviction of manslaughter is SET ASIDE.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in this opinion.
This appeal concerns the statutory duty to retreat before resorting to the use of deadly force in self-defense. In this case a woman killed her husband in a bedroom of their home. The jury convicted her of reckless manslaughter. She died while her appeal was pending. Three issues were argued in the case: (1) whether her appeal should be dismissed because it became moot upon her death; (2) whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury under the circumstances that she had a duty to retreat from her separate bedroom before using deadly force; and (3) whether the trial court should have specifically instructed the jury that it could consider the history of spousal abuse to determine (in addition to whether she might have killed in the heat of passion arising from a reasonable provocation) whether she honestly and reasonably believed that deadly force was
necessary to protect herself against death or serious bodily injury. From the evidence in the case, a jury could have found the following facts.
The killing occurred on February 8, 1993. The jury heard evidence of long-standing physical and emotional abuse inflicted by the victim on defendant. Witnesses portrayed John Gartland as a violent and threatening husband obsessed with jealousy.
On the afternoon of the killing, the Gartlands stopped at a tavern in Newark. There, they began to argue. When the Gartlands returned home at about 5:00 p.m., a neighbor heard Mr. Gartland (John) threaten his wife. Other neighbors heard similar abuse and threats.
The argument continued when John could not find the remote control for the television and accused Ellen of hiding it. Angered, he left the home. When he returned, he renewed the argument about the remote control. Ellen asked him to leave her alone and went upstairs to her bedroom. For over ten years, she and her husband had had separate bedrooms.
Previously, John had left her alone in this room. On this evening, he followed her into her bedroom. She told him to go to bed and to leave her alone. He approached her, threatening to strike her. One of them, the parties dispute which, said "I'm going to hurt you" as he approached her.
Ellen took her son's hunting shotgun from her bedroom closet. She pointed it at her husband and told him to stop. He said, "You're not going to do [anything] to me because you, bitch, I'm going to kill you." He lunged at her with his fists clenched. She pulled the trigger. ...